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A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts 

Toshihiko Izutsu 

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"Professor Izutsu's work is a pioneering attempt to bring into focus the 
shareable philosophical concerns of two seemingly unrelated landmarks 
in religious thought. His method is suggestive, interpretation new and 
bold, and material used important for further research. His book is 
useful to students of comparative religion, philosophy of religion, cul- 
tural anthropology, Asian thought and religion, and Islamic and Taoist 
studies." — Tu Wei-ming 

"[This book] carries out a comparison in depth between Islamic and 
Chinese thought for the first time in modern scholarship. . . .Since this 
book appeared it has influenced every work on Ibn Arab! and meta- 
physical Sufism . . . [and] any cursory study of Sufism during the last 
fifteen years will reveal the extent of Izutsu's influence. 

— Seyyed Hossein Nasr 

University of California Press 
Berkeley 94720 

ISBN 0-S2D-CISabM-l 



A Comparative Study of y v 5 

Key Philosophical Concepts . 

Toshihiko Izutsu 

Berkeley — Los Angeles — London 

3 7001 01726025 0 


A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts 
by Toshihiko Izutsu 

University of California Press 
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California 
University of California Press, Ltd. 

London, England 

Copyright ©1983 by Toshihiko Izutsu 

First published 1983 by Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, Tokyo 

This edition is published by The University of California Press, 1984, 

by arrangement with Iwanami Shoten, Publishers 

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data 

Izutsu, Toshihiko, 1914— 

Sufism and Taoism. 

Rev. ed. of: A comparative study of the key philo- 
sophical concepts in Sufism and Taoism. 1966-67. 

1 . Sufism. 2. Taoism. 3. Ibn al- Arabi, 1165-1240. 

4. Lao-tzu. 5. Chuang-tzu. I. Title. 

BP 189.1% 1984 181 '.074 84-78 

ISBN 0-520-05264-1 

Printed in the United States of America 


Preface by T. Izutsu 

Introduction 1 

Notes 4 

Part I - Ibn ‘Arab! 

I Dream and Reality 7 

Notes 21 

II The Absolute in its Absoluteness 23 

Notes 36 

III The Self-knowledge of Man 39 

Notes 46 

IV Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal 

Dispersion 48 

Notes 65 

V Metaphysical Perplexity 68 

Notes 86 

VI The Shadow of the Absolute 89 

Notes 96 

VII The Divine Names 99 

Notes 107 

VIII Allah and the Lord 110 

Notes 115 

IX Ontological Mercy 116 

Notes 138 

X The Water of Life 141 

Notes 150 

XI The Self-manifestation of the Absolute 152 

Notes 157 

XII Permanent Archetypes 159 

Notes 192 

XIII Creation 197 

Notes 215 

XIV Man as Microcosm 218 

Notes 243 

XV The Perfect Man as an Individual 247 

Notes 261 

XVI Apostle, Prophet, and Saint 263 

Notes 272 

XVII The Magical Power of the Perfect Man 275 

Notes 282 

Part II - Lao-Tzu & Chuang-Tzu 

I Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu 287 

Notes 297 

II From Mythopoiesis to Metaphysics 300 

Notes 308 

III Dream and Reality 310 

Notes 317 

IV Beyond This and That 319 

Notes 329 

V The Birth of a New Ego 332 

Notes 350 

VI Against Essentialism 354 

Notes 373 

VII The Way 375 

Notes 393 

VIII The Gateway of Myriad Wonders 398 

Notes 413 

IX Determinism and Freedom 418 

Notes 427 

X Absolute Reversal of Values 430 

Notes 442 

XI The Perfect Man 444 

Notes 454 

XII Homo Politicus 457 

Notes 465 

Part III - A Comparative Reflection 

I Methodological Preliminaries 469 

Note 473 

II The Inner Transformation of Man 474 

Note 478 

III The Multi stratified Structure of Reality 479 

IV Essence and Existence 482 

V The Self-evolvement of Existence 486 


This is originally a book which I wrote more than fifteen years ago, 
when I was teaching Islamic philosophy at the Institute of Islamic 
Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada. 

At that time I was becoming conscious of myself gradually getting 
into a new phase of my intellectual life, groping my way towards a 
new type of Oriental philosophy based on a series of rigorously 
philological, comparative studies of the key terms of various 
philosophical traditions in the Near, Middle, and Far East. The 
present work was the very first product of my endeavour in this 

The book was subsequently published in Japan in two separate 
volumes in 1966—1967, under the title A Comparative Study of Key 
Philosophical Concepts in Sufism and Taoism (with the subtitle ‘Ibn 
‘Arab! and Lao-tzu - Chuang-tzu’) as a publication of the Institute 
of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, Keio University, Tokyo, under 
the directorship of the late Professor Nobuhiro Matsumoto. 

A growing demand for a new, revised edition made me decide to 
republish the book while I was in Iran. Printed in England, it had 
been scheduled to come out in Tehran towards the end of the year 
1978, when the sudden outbreak of the Khomeini ‘revolution’ 
rendered its publication impossible. Thus it was that, by a strange 
working of fate, the book - completely revised, but still in the form 
of galley proofs - came back with its author once again to Japan, the 
place where it had first seen the light of day. 

In the process of revising the book in its entirety, I did my best to 
eliminate all the defects and imperfections that had come to my 
notice in the meantime. But, of course, there are natural limits to 
such work of correction and amendment. 

I only hope that this old book of mine in a new form, despite many 
mistakes and shortcomings that must still be there, might at least 
make a modest contribution towards the development of ‘meta- 
historical dialogues’ among representatives of the various 


philosophical traditions in the East and West, a special kind of 
philosophical dialogue of which the world today seems to be in 
urgent need. 

It is my pleasant duty to express my deep gratitude to the Iwanami 
Shoten, Publishers, for having undertaken the publication of this 
book. My thanks go in particular to Mr Atsushi Aiba (of the same 
publishing house) who has spared no effort in smoothing the way for 
the realization of this project. I take this occasion to thank also the 
authorities of my alma mater, Keio University, from whom, as I 
recall now, I derived inestimable encouragement while I was 
engaged in writing this book in its original form. 

October 4, 1981 
Kamakura, Japan 


As indicated by the title and the subtitle, the main purpose of the 
present work in its entirety is to attempt a structural comparison 
between the world-view of Sufism as represented by Ibn ‘ Arabi and 
the world-view of Taoism as represented by Lao-tzu and Chuang- 
tzu. I am aware of the fact that this kind of study has a number of 
pitfalls. A comparison made in a casual way between two thought- 
systems which have no historical connection may become superfi- 
cial observations of resemblances and differences lacking in 
scientific rigor. In order to avoid falling into this error, an effort will 
be made to lay bare the fundamental structure of each of the two 
world-views independently and as rigorously as possible before 
proceeding to any comparative considerations. 

With this in view, the First Part will be entirely devoted to an 
attempt at isolating and analyzing the major ontological concepts 
which underlie the philosophical world-view of Ibn ‘Arabi, while in 
the second part exactly the same kind of analytic study will be made 
concerning the world-view of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, in such a way 
that both parts may constitute two entirely independent studies, one 
of Ibn ‘Arabi and the other of ancient Taoism. Only in the third part 
will an attempt be made to compare, and co-ordinate, the key- 
concepts of these two world-views which have been previously 
analyzed without any regard to similarities and differences between 

However this may be, the dominant motive running through the 
entire work is the desire to open a new vista in the domain of 
comparative philosophy and mysticism. A good starting point for 
such a comparison is provided by the fact that both world-views are 
based on two pivots, the Absolute and the Perfect Man, 1 a whole 
system of ontological thought being developed in each case between 
these two poles. 

It is to be noted that as an ontological structure this is nothing 
peculiar to Sufism and Taoism. The opposition of the Absolute and 
the Perfect Man in various forms as the two pivots of a world-view is 
a basic pattern common to many types of mysticism that have 


Sufism and Taoism 

developed in the world in widely different places and ages. And a 
comparative consideration of a number of systems sharing the same 
broad pattern and differing from each other in details both of origin 
and historical circumstance would seem to prove very fruitful in 
preparing the ground for that which Professor Henry Corbin has 
aptly called ‘un dialogue dans la metahistoire’ , meta-historical or 
transhistorical dialogue, and which is so urgently needed in the 
present situation of the world. 

Referring to the fact that Ibn ‘Arab! has evoked so much discus- 
sion and controversy, unprecedented in the history of Islamic 
thought, and attributing this fact to the nature of Islam itself which 
combines two Truths: haqiqah ‘the truth based on Intellection’ and 
shari'ah ‘the truth based on Revelation’, Dr Osman Yahya makes 
the following interesting remark 2 : le cas d’Ibn ‘ Arabi ne se poserait 
pas avec autant d’acuite dans une tradition de pure metaphysique 
comme le taoism ou le vedanta ou la personality du Maitre . . . eut 
pu s’epanouir librement, ni non plus dans une tradition de pure loi 
positive ou son cas n’eut meme pas pu etre pose puisqu’il eut ete 
refuse par la communaute tout entiere, irremediablement. Mais le 
destin a voulu placer Ibn ‘Arabi a la croisee des chemins pour 
degager, en sa personne, la veritable vocation de l’lslam. 

There can be no denying that Lao-tzu’s metaphysics of Tao 
presents in its abysmal depth of thought a number of striking 
similarities to Ibn ‘ArabFs conception of Being. This is the more 
interesting because, as I shall indicate in the Second Part, Lao-tzu 
and Chuang-tzu represent a culmination point of a spiritual tradi- 
tion which is historically quite different from Sufism. 

We must, as I have remarked above, guard ourselves against 
making too easy comparisons, but we must also admit, I believe, 
that a comparative study of this kind, if conducted carefully, will at 
least furnish us with a common ground upon which an intercultural 
dialogue may fruitfully be opened. 

In accordance with the general plan above outlined, the first half 
of the present book will be concerned exclusively with an analytic 
study of the key-concepts which constitute the ontological basis of 
Ibn ‘ArabFs world-view. This world-view, as I have said, turns 
round two pivots, the Absolute and the Perfect Man, in the form of 
an ontological Descent and Ascent. In describing this cosmic pro- 
cess Ibn ‘Arabi develops at every stage a number of concepts of 
decisive importance. It is these concepts that the present work 
intends to analyze. It purports to analyze methodically the ontologi- 
cal aspect of Ibn ‘ArabFs mystical philosophy regarding it as a 
system of key-concepts that relate to ‘being’ and existence’. 

Ontology, we must admit, is but one aspect of the thought of this 
extraordinary man. It has other no less important aspects such as 



psychology, epistemology, symbolism, etc., which, together, consti- 
tute an original and profound world-view. But the concept of Being, 
as we shall see, is the very basis of his philosophical thinking, and his 
theory of Being is doubtless of such originality and of such a far- 
reaching historical importance that it calls for separate treatment. 

At the very outset I would like to make it clear that this is not a 
philologically exhaustive study of Ibn ‘Arabi. On the contrary, the 
present study is based, as far as concerns Ibn ‘Arabi himself, almost 
exclusively on only one of his works: ‘The Bezels of Wisdom’ or 
Fu$ii$ al-Hikam. It is essentially an analysis of the major ontological 
concepts which Ibn ‘Arabi develops in this celebrated book that has 
often been described as his opus magnum, and has been studied and 
commented upon by so many people throughout the centuries. 3 So 
on the material side, the present work does not claim to offer 
anything new. 

From the beginning it was not my intention to be exhaustive. My 
intention was rather to penetrate the ‘life-breath’ itself, the vivify- 
ing spirit and the very existential source of the philosophizing drive 
of this great thinker, and to pursue from that depth the formation of 
the whole ontological system step by step as he himself develops it. 
In order to understand the thought of a man like Ibn ‘Arab!, one 
must grasp the very spirit which pervades and vivifies the whole 
structure; otherwise everything will be lost. All considerations from 
outside are sure to go wide of the mark. Even on an intellectual and 
philosophical level, one must try to understand the thought from 
inside and reconstruct it in one’s self by what might be called an 
existential empathy. For such a purpose, to be exhaustive, though of 
course desirable, is not the first requirement. 

Ibn ‘Arab! was not merely a profound thinker; he was an unusu- 
ally prolific writer, too. The authorities differ among themselves on 
the exact number. Al-Sha‘rani, to give an example, notes that the 
Master wrote about 400 works. 4 The repertoire general of the 
above-mentioned bibliographical work by Dr Osman Yahya lists as 
many as 856 works, although the number includes doubtful works 
and those that are evidently spurious. 

In a situation like this, and for purposes like ours, it is not only 
irrelevant but, even more, positively dangerous to try to note every- 
thing the author has said and written on each subject over a period 
of many years, For one might easily drown oneself in the vast ocean 
of concepts, images and symbols that are scattered about in utter 
disorder throughout the hundreds of his works, and lose sight of the 
main line or lines of thought and the guiding spirit that underlies 
the whole structure. For the purpose of isolating the latter from the 
disorderly (as it looks at first sight) mass of symbols and images, it 


Sufism and Taoism 

will be more wise and perhaps, more profitable to concentrate on a 
work in which he presents his thought in its maturest form . 5 

In any case, the present work consists exclusively of an analysis of 
the ‘Bezels of Wisdom’ except in a few places where I shall refer to 
one of his smaller works for elucidation of some of the important 
points . 6 As remarked above, Fu$us al-Hikam has been studied in 
the past by many people in many different forms. And yet I hope 
that my own analysis of the same book has something to contribute 
toward a better understanding of the great Master who has been 
considered by many people one of the profoundest, but at the same 
time, obscurest thinkers Islam has ever produced. 


1. In Ibn ‘ArabFs system, the Absolute is called haqq (Truth or Reality) and the 
Perfect Man is called insan kamil meaning literally ‘perfect man’. In Taoism, the 
Absolute is tao and the Perfect Man is sheng jen (Sacred Man or Saint), chert jen 
(True Man), etc. I have dealt with the relationship between the Absolute and the 
Perfect Man in Taoism in particular in my Eranos lecture for 1967: ‘The Absolute 
and the Perfect Man in Taoism’, Eranos- Jahrbuch , XXXVI, Zurich, 1968. 

2. Histoire et classification de I’ceuvre d’Ibn ' Arab f, 2 vols. 1964, Damas, avant- 
propos, pp. 18-19. 

3. Dr Osman Yahya lists more than 100 commentaries on Fkjzzj al-Hikam, cf. op. 
cit., I, p. 17, pp. 241-257. 

4. al-Sha‘rani, al-Yawaqit wa-al-Jawahir, Cairo, 1305 A.H., vol. I., p. 10. 

5. Ibn ‘Arabi (born in Spain in 1165 A.D.) died in Damascus in 1240/ Fujiis 
al-Hikam was written in 1229, ten years before his death. As regards his life anahis 
works the best introduction, to my knowledge, is found in Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s 
Three Muslim Sages, Cambridge, Mass., 1964, pp. 84-121. 

6. As a concrete illustration of the oft-repeated attempt at bringing philosophical 
coherence and order into the world-view of the Master, I shall in most cases give 
al-QashanFs comments side by side with Ibn ‘ArabFs words. ‘Abd al-Razzaq al- 
Qashani (d. 1330) is one of the greatest figures in the school of Ibn ‘Arabi. The 
edition used in the present book is Sharh al-Qashani ‘ala Fu$u$ al-Hikam, Cairo, 
1321 A.H. For the interpretation of difficult passages of the text I have also used 
Qayjari and Jami. 

I Dream and Reality 

So-called ‘reality’ , the sensible world which surrounds us and which 
we are accustomed to regard as ‘reality’, is, for Ibn ‘Arab!, but a 
dream. We perceive by the senses a large number of things, distin- 
guish them one from another, put them in order by our reason, and 
thus end up by establishing something solid around us. We call that 
construct ‘reality’ and do not doubt that it is real. 

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, however, that kind of ‘reality’ is not 
reality in the true sense of the word. In other terms, such a thing is 
not Being ( wujiid ) as it really is. Living as we do in this phenomenal 
world, Being in its metaphysical reality is no less imperceptible to us 
than phenomenal things are in their phenomenal reality to a man 
who is asleep and dreaming of them. 

Quoting the famous Tradition, ‘All men are asleep (in this 
world); only when they die, do they wake up,’ he remarks: 

The world is an illusion; it has no real existence. And this is what is 
meant by ‘imagination’ ( khayal ). For you just imagine that it (i.e ., the 
world) is an autonomous reality quite different from and indepen- 
dent of the absolute Reality, while in truth it is nothing of the sort 1 . 

. . . Know that you yourself are an imagination. And everything that 
you perceive and say to yourself, ‘this is not me’, is also an imagina- 
tion. So that the whole world of existence is imagination within 
imagination . 2 

What, then, should we do, if what we have taken for ‘reality’ is but a 
dream, not the real form of Being, but something illusory? Should 
we abandon once for all this illusory world and go out of it in search 
of an entirely different world, a really real world? Ibn ‘Arab! does 
not take such a position, because, in his view, ‘dream’, ‘illusion’ or 
‘imagination’ does not mean something valueless or false; it simply 
means ‘being a symbolic reflection of something truly real’. 

The so-called ‘reality’ certainly is not the true Reality, but this 
must not be taken to mean that it is merely a vain and groundless 
thing. The so-called ‘reality’, though it is not the Reality itself, 
vaguely and indistinctively reflects the latter on the level of imagina- 
tion. It is, in other words, a symbolic representation of the Reality. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Dream and Reality 


All it needs is that we should interpret it in a proper way just as we 
usually interpret our dreams in order to get to the real state of affairs 
beyond the dream-symbols. 

Referring to the above-quoted Tradition, ‘All men are asleep; 
only when they die, do they wake up’, Ibn ‘Arab! says that ‘the 
Prophet called attention by these words to the fact that whatever 
man perceives in this present world is to him as a dream is to a man 
who dreams, and that it must be interpreted’ . 3 

What is seen in a dream is an ‘imaginal’ form of the Reality, not 
the Reality itself. All we have to do is take it back to its original and 
true status. This is what is meant by ‘interpretation’ ( ta’wil ). The 
expression: ‘to die and wake up’ appearing in the Tradition is for 
Ibn ‘ Arabi nothing other than a metaphorical reference to the act of 
interpretation understood in this sense. Thus ‘death’ does not mean 
here death as a biological event. It means a spiritual event consisting 
in a man’s throwing off the shackles of the sense and reason, 
stepping over the confines of the phenomenal, and seeing through 
the web of phenomenal things what lies beyond. It means, in short, 
the mystical experience of ‘self-annihilation’ (Jana). 

What does a man see when he wakes up from his phenomenal 
sleep, opens his real eyes, and looks around? What kind of world 
does he observe then - that is, in the self-illuminating state of 
‘subsistence’ ( baqa’)l To describe that extraordinary world and 
elucidate its metaphysical-ontological make-up, that is the main 
task of Ibn ‘Arabi. The description of the world as he observes it in 
the light of his mystical experiences constitutes his philosophical 

What, then, is that Something which hides itself behind the veil of 
the phenomenal, making the so-called ‘reality’ a grand-scale net- 
work of symbols vaguely and obscurely pointing to that which lies 
beyond them? The answer is given immediately. It is the Absolute, 
the real or absolute Reality which Ibn ‘Arab! calls al-haqq . Thus the 
so-called/ reality’ is but a dream, but it is not a sheer illusion. It is a 
particular appearance of the absolute Reality, a particular form of 
its self-manifestation (tajalli). It is a dream having a metaphysical 
basis. ‘The world of being and becoming ( kawn ) is an imagination’ , 
he says, ‘but it is, in truth, Reality itself’. 4 

Thus the world of being and becoming, the so-called ‘reality’, 
consisting of various forms, properties and states, is in itself a 
colorful fabric of fantasy and imagination, but it indicates at the 
same time nothing other than Reality - if only one knows how to 
take these forms and properties, not in themselves, but as so many 
manifestations of the Reality. One who can do this is a man who has 
attained the deepest mysteries of the Way (tariqah). 

Prophets are visionaries. By nature they tend to see strange 
visions which do not fall within the capacity of an ordinary man. 
These extraordinary visions are known as ‘veridical dreams’ ( ru’ya 
§adiqah ) and we readily recognize their symbolic nature. We ordi- 
narily admit without hesitation that a prophet perceives through 
and beyond his visions something ineffable, something of the true 
figure of the Absolute. In truth, however, not only such uncommon 
visions are symbolic ‘dreams’ for a prophet. To his mind everything 
he sees, everything with which he is in contact even in daily life is 
liable to assume a symbolic character. ‘Everything he perceives in 
the state of wakefulness is of such a nature, though there is, cer- 
tainly, a difference in the states’. 5 The formal difference between 
the state of sleep (in which he sees things by his faculty of imagina- 
tion) and the state of wakefulness (in which he perceives things by 
his senses) is kept intact, yet in both states the things perceived are 
equally symbols. 6 

Thus, a prophet who lives his life in such an unusual spiritual state 
may be said to be in a dream within a dream all through his life. ‘The 
whole of his life is nothing but a dream within a dream’. 7 What Ibn 
‘Arabi means by this proposition is this: since the phenomenal 
world itself is in truth a ‘dream’ 8 (although ordinary people are not 
aware of its being a ‘dream’), the prophet who perceives unusual 
symbols in the midst of that general ‘dream’ -context may be com- 
pared to a man who is dreaming in a dream. 

This, however, is the deepest understanding of the situation, to 
which most people have no access, for they are ordinarily convinced 
that the phenomenal world is something materially solid; they do 
not notice its symbolic nature. Not even prophets themselves - not 
all of them - have a clear understanding of this matter. It is a deep 
mystery of Being accessible only to a perfect prophet like 
Muhammad. Ibn ‘Arabi explains this point taking as an illus- 
tration the contrast between the prophet Yusuf (Joseph) and the 
Prophet Muhammad regarding their respective depth of 

It is related in the Qoran (XII, 4) that Joseph as a small boy once 
saw in a dream eleven stars, and the sun and the moon bowing down 
before him. This, Ibn ‘Arab! observes, was an event which occurred 
only in Joseph’s imagination {khayal). Joseph saw in his imagina- 
tion his brothers in the form of stars, his father in the form of the 
sun, and his mother in the form of the moon. Many years later, 
before Joseph, who was now a ‘mighty prince’ in Egypt, his brothers 
fell down prostrate At that moment Joseph said to himself, ‘This is 
the interpreted meaning ( ta’wil ) of my dream of long ago. My Lord 
has made it true!’ (XII, 99). 

The pivotal point, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, lies in the last phrase: 


Sufism and Taoism 

‘has made it true’. 9 It means: ‘God has made to appear in the 
sensible world what was in the past in the form of imagination’. 10 
This implies that the realization or materialization in a sensible form 
of what he had seen in a dream was, in the understanding of Joseph, 
the final and ultimate realization. He thought that the things left the 
domain of ‘dream’ and came out to the level of ‘reality’. 

Against this Ibn ‘Arab! remarks that, as regards being sensible, 
there is fundamentally no difference at all between ‘dream’ and 
‘reality’; what Joseph saw in his dream was from the beginning 
sensible, for ‘it is the function of imagination to produce sensible 
things ( mahsusat ), nothing else’. 11 

The position of Muhammad goes deeper than this. Viewed from 
the standpoint of the prophet Muhammad, the following is the right 
interpretation of what happened to Joseph concerning his dream. 
One has to start from the recognition that life itself is a dream. In 
this big dream which is his life and of which Joseph himself is not 
conscious, he sees a particular dream (the eleven stars, etc.). From 
this particular dream he wakes up. That is to say, he dreams in his 
big dream that he wakes up. Then he interprets his own (particular) 
dream (the stars = his brothers, etc.). In truth, this is still a continua- 
tion of his big dream. He dreams himself interpreting his own 
dream. Then the event which he thus interprets comes true as a 
sensible fact. Thereupon Joseph thinks that his interpretation has 
materialized and that his dream has definitely come to an end. He 
thinks that he stands now completely outside of his dream, while, in 
reality, he is still dreaming. He is not aware of the fact that he is 
dreaming. 12 

The contrast between Muhammad and Joseph is conclusively 
summed up by al-Qashani in the following way: 

The difference between Muhammad and Joseph in regard to the 
depth of understanding consists in this. Joseph regarded the sensible 
forms existing in the outer world as ‘reality’ whereas, in truth, all 
forms that exist in imagination are (also) sensible without exception, 
for imagination ( khayal ) is a treasury of the sensible things. Every- 
thing that exists in imagination is a sensible form although it actually 
is not perceived by the senses. As for Muhammad, he regarded the 
sensible forms existing in the outer world also as products of imagina- 
tion (khayaliyah), nay even as imagination within imagination. This 
because he regarded the present world of ours as a dream while the 
only ‘reality’ (in the true sense of the word) was, in his view, the 
Absolute revealing itself as it really is in the sensible forms which are 
nothing but so many different loci of its self-manifestation. This point 
is understood only when one wakes up from the present life - which is 
a sleep of forgetfulness - after one dies to this world through self- 
annihilation in God. 

Dream and Reality 


The basic idea which, as we have just observed, constitutes the very 
starting-point of Ibn ‘Arabi’s ontological thinking, namely, that 
so-called ‘reality’ is but a dream, suggests on the one hand that the 
world as we experience it under normal conditions is not in itself 
Reality, that it is an illusion, an appearance, an unreality. But 
neither does it mean, on the other hand, that the world of sensible 
things and events is nothing but sheer fantasy, a purely subjective 
projection of the mind. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s view, if ‘reality’ is an illusion, 
it is not a subjective illusion, but an ‘objective’ illusion; that is, an 
unreality standing on a firm ontological basis. And this is tan- 
tamount to saying that it is not an illusion at all, at least in the sense 
in which the word is commonly taken. 

In order that this point become clear, reference must be made to 
the ontological conception peculiar to Ibn ‘Arab! and his school of 
the ‘five planes of Being’ . The structure of these ‘planes’ (/ hadarat ) 13 
is succinctly explained by Al-Qashani as follows. 14 In the Sufi 
world-view, five ‘worlds’ fawalim) or five basic planes of Being are 
distinguished, each one of them representing a Presence or an 
ontological mode of the absolute Reality in its self-manifestation. 

(1) The plane of the Essence ( dhat ), the world of the absolute 
non-manifestation ( al-ghayb al-mutlaq) or the Mystery of 
Mysteries. 15 

(2) The plane of the Attributes and the Names, the Presence of 
Divinity ( uliihiyah ). 16 

(3) The plane of the Actions, the Presence of Lordship 
(rubiibiyah) . 

(4) The plane of Images (amthal) and Imagination (khayal). 11 

(5) The plane of the senses and sensible experience 
(mushahadah) . 

These five planes constitute among themselves an organic whole, 
the things of a lower plane serving as symbols or images for the 
things of the higher planes. Thus, according to al-Qashani, what- 
ever exists in the plane of ordinary reality (which is the lowest of all 
Divine Presences) is a symbol-exemplification (mithal) for a thing 
existing in the plane of Images, and everything that exists in the 
world of Images is a form reflecting a state of affairs in the plane of 
the Divine Names and Divine Attributes, while every Attribute is 
an aspect of the Divine Essence in the act of self-manifestation. 

Details about the five planes will be given in the following chap- 
ters. Suffice it here to note that the whole world of Being, in Ibn 
‘Arabf s view, consists basically of these five levels of Divine self- 
manifestation, and that there exists between the higher and lower 
levels such an organic relation as has just been mentioned. With this 
in mind, let us return to the problem of our immediate concern. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Anything that is found at the lowest level of Being, i.e., the 
sensible world, or any event that occurs there, is a ‘phenomenon’ in 
the etymological meaning of the term; it is a form {§urah) in which a 
state of affairs in the higher plane of Images directly reveals itself, 
and indirectly and ultimately, the absolute Mystery itself. To look at 
things in the sensible world and not to stop there, but to see beyond 
them the ultimate ground of all Being, that precisely is what is called 
by Ibn ‘ArabTunveiling’ ( kashf ) or mystical intuition . 18 ‘Unveiling’ 
means, in short, taking each of the sensible things as a locus in which 
Reality discloses itself to us. And a man who does so encounters 
everywhere a ‘phenomenon’ of Reality, whatever he sees and hears 
in this world. Whatever he experiences is for him a form manifesting 
an aspect of Divine Existence, a symbol for an aspect of Divine 
Reality. And in this particular respect, his sensory experiences are 
of the same symbolic nature as visions he experiences in his sleep . 19 

In the eyes of a man possessed of this kind of spiritual capacity, 
the whole world of ‘reality’ ceases to be something solidly self- 
sufficient and turns into a deep mysterious foret de symboles, a 
system of ontological correspondences. And dreams which arise in 
the ‘imaginal’ plane of Being turn out to be the same as the things 
and events of the world of sensory experience. Both the world of 
sensible things and the world of dreams are, in this view, the same 
domain of symbols. As al-Qashani says, ‘Everything which comes 
manifesting itself from the world of the Unseen into the world of 
sensible experience - whether it manifests itself in the senses or 
imagination, or again in an image-similitude - is a revelation, an 
instruction or communication from God’ . 20 

The symbolic structure of the world here depicted, however, is 
accessible only to the consciousness of an extremely limited number 
of persons. The majority of people live attached and confined to the 
lowest level of Being, that of sensible things. That is the sole world 
of existence for their opaque consciousness. This lowest level of 
Being only, being tangible and graspable through the senses, is real 
for them. And even on this level, it never occurs to them to ‘inter- 
pret’ the forms of the things around them. They are asleep. 

But since, on the other hand, the common people, too, are 
possessed of the faculty of imagination, something unusual may - 
and does - occur in their minds on rare occasions. An invitation 
from above visits them and flashes across their consciousness like 
lightning when it is least expected. This happens when they have 
visions and dreams. 

Ordinarily, imagination or fantasy means the faculty of producing 
in the mind a deceptive impression of the presence of a thing which 
is not actually there in the external world or which is totally non- 
existent. With Ibn ‘Arab!, it has a different meaning. Of course in 

Dream and Reality 


his theory, too, imagination is the faculty of evoking in the mind 
those things that are not externally present, i.e., things that are not 
immediately present in the plane of sensible experience. But it is not 
a wild fantasy or hallucination which induces the mind to see things 
that are nowhere existent. What it produces is not a groundless 
reverie. It makes visible, albeit in an obscure and veiled way, a state 
of affairs in the higher planes of Being. It is a function of the mind 
directly connected with the ‘world of Images’. 

The ‘world of Images’ (‘ alam al-mithal ) is ontologically an inter- 
mediate domain of contact between the purely sensible world and 
the purely spiritual, i.e., non-material world. It is, as Affifi defines it, 
‘a really existent world in which are found the forms of the things in 
a manner that stands between “fineness” and “coarseness”, that is, 
between pure spirituality and pure materiality ’. 21 

All things that exist on this level of Being have, on the one hand, 
something in common with things existing in the sensible world, and 
resemble, on the other, the abstract intelligibles existing in the 
world of pure intellect. They are special things half-sensible and 
half-intelligible. They are sensible, but of an extremely fine and 
rarefied sensible-ness. They are intelligible, too, but not of such a 
pure intelligibility as that of the Platonic Ideas. 

What is commonly called imagination is nothing but this world as 
it is reflected in the human consciousness, not in its proper forms, 
but obliquely, dimly, and utterly deformed. Images obtained in such 
a way naturally lack an ontological basis and are rightly to be 
disposed of as hallucinations. 

Sometimes, however, the ‘world of Images’ appears as it really is, 
without deformation, in the consciousness even of an ordinary man. 
The most conspicuous case of this is seen in the veridical dream. The 
‘world of Images’ is eternally existent and it is at every moment 
acting upon human consciousness. But man, on his part, is not 
usually aware of it while he is awake, because his mind in that state is 
impeded and distracted by the material forces of the external world. 
Only when he is asleep, the physical faculties of his mind being in 
abeyance, can the faculty of imagination operate in the proper way. 
And veridical dreams are produced. 

However, even if a man sees in his sleep a veridical dream, it is 
always presented in a series of sensible images. And it remains 
devoid of significance unless it be ‘interpreted’. Ibn ‘Arabi sees a 
typical example of this in the Biblical- Qoranic anecdote of 
Abraham sacrificing his son. 

Abraham once saw in a dream a sacrificial ram appearing in the 
image of his son Isaac (Ishaq). In reality, this was a symbol. It was a 
symbol for the first institution of an important religious ritual; 


Sufism and Taoism 

namely, that of immolation of a sacrificial animal on the altar. And 
since this ritual itself was ultimately a symbol of man’s offering up 
his own soul in sacrifice, Abraham’s vision was to be interpreted as a 
sensible phenomenal form of this spiritual event. But Abraham did 
not ‘interpret’ it. And he was going to sacrifice his son. Here is the 
explanation of this event by Ibn ‘Arabi . 22 

Abraham, the Friend (of God), said to his son, ‘Lo, I have seen 
myself in my dream sacrificing thee’. (Qoran XXXVII, 102). Dream, 
in truth, is a matter, pertaining to the plane of Imagination. 23 He, 
however, did not interpret (his dream). What he saw in the dream 
was a ram assuming the form of the son of Abraham. And Abraham 
supposed his vision to be literally true (and was about to sacrifice 
Isaac). But the Lord redeemed him from the illusion of Abraham 
with the Great Sacrifice (i.e. the sacrifice of a ram). This was God’s 
‘interpretation’ of the dream of Abraham, but the latter did not know 
it. He did not know it because all theophany in a sensible form in the 
plane of Imagination needs a different kind of knowledge which 
alone makes it possible for man to understand what is meant by God 
through that particular form. . . . 

Thus God said to Abraham, calling out to him, ‘O Abraham, thou 
hast taken the vision for truth’ (XXXVII, 104-105). Mark that God 
did not say, ‘Thou has grasped the truth in imagining that it is thy 
son’. (The mistake pointed out here) arose from the fact that 
Abraham did not ‘interpret’ the dream but took what he had seen as 
literally true, when all dreams must of necessity be ‘inter- 
preted’ ... If what he imagined had been true, he would have 
sacrificed his son. 24 He merely took his vision for truth and thought 
that (Isaac, whom he had seen in the dream) was literally his own son. 

In reality, God meant by the form of his son nothing more than the 
Great Sacrifice. 

Thus He ‘redeemed’ him (i.e., Isaac) simply because of what occurred in 
Abraham’s mind, whereas in itself and in the eye of God it was not at all a 
question of redeeming. 25 

Thus (when Isuac was ‘redeemed’) his visual sense perceived a 
sacrificial animal (i.e., a ram) while his imagination evoked in his 
mind the image of his son . (Because of this symbolic correspondence) 
he would have interpreted his vision as signifying his son or some 
other thing if he had seen a ram in imagination (i.e., in his dream, 
instead of seeing his son as he actually did). Then says God, ‘Verily 
this is a manifest trial’ (XXXVII, 106), meaning thereby the trial (of 
Abraham by God) concerning his knowledge; namely, whether or 
not he knows that the very nature of a vision properly requires an 
‘interpretation’. Of course Abraham did know that things of Im- 
agination properly require ‘interpretation’. But (in this particular 
case) he carelessly neglected to do that. Thus he did not fulfil what 
was properly required of him and simply assumed that his vision was 
a literal truth. 

Abraham was a prophet. And a man who stands in the high spiritual 


Dream and Reality 

position of prophethood must know (theoretically) that a veridical 
dream is a symbol for an event belonging to the plane of higher 
realities. And yet Abraham actually forgot to ‘interpret’ his dream. 
If prophets are like that, how could it be expected that ordinary men 
‘interpret’ rightly their dreams and visions? It is but natural, then, 
that an ordinary man cannot see that an event occurring in so-called 
‘reality’ is a symbol for an event corresponding to it in the higher 
plane of the Images. 

How can man cultivate such an ability for seeing things symboli- 
cally? What should he do in order that the material veil covering 
things be removed to reveal the realities that lie beyond? 

Regarding this question, Ibn ‘ Arab! in a passage of the Fusu$ points to 
a very interesting method. It is a way of discipline, a way of practice for 
cultivating what he calls the ‘spiritual eyesight’ (‘ayn al-basirah). It is a 
way that renders possible the inner transformation of man. 

This inner transformation of man is explained by Ibn ‘Arab! in 
terms of transition from the ‘worldly state of being {al-nash’ah 
al-dunyawiyah) to the ‘otherworldly state of being’ {al-nash’ah 
al-ukhrawiyah ). 26 The ‘worldly state of being’ is the way the major- 
ity of men naturally are. It is characterized by the fact that man, in 
his natural state, is completely under the sway of his body, and the 
activity of his mind impeded by the physical constitution of the 
bodily organs. Under such conditions, even if he tries to understand 
something and grasp its reality, the object cannot appear to his mind 
except in utter deformation. It is a state in which man stands 
completely veiled from the essential realities of things. 

In order to escape from this state, Ibn ‘Arab! says, man must 
personally re-live the experiences of Elias-Enoch and re-enact in 
himself the spiritual drama of the inner transformation symbolized 
by these two names. 

Elias (Ilyas) and Enoch (Idris) were two names assumed by one 
and the same person. They were two names given to one person in 
two different states. Enoch was a prophet before the time of Noah. 
He was raised high by God and was placed in the sphere of the sun. 
His name was Enoch in that supreme position. Later he was sent 
down as an apostle to the Syrian town of Baalbek. In that second 
state he was named Elias . 27 

Elias who was sent down in this manner to the earth from the high 
sphere of heaven did not stop halfway but became totally ‘earthly’. 
He pushed the ‘elemental if unhurt) state of being’ on the earth to its 
extreme limit. This symbolizes a man who, instead of exercising his 
human reason in a lukewarm way as most people do, abandons 
himself thoroughly and completely to the elemental life of nature to 
the degree of being less than human. 


Sufism and Taoism 

While he was in that state, he had once a strange vision, in which 
he saw a mountain called Lubnan split up and a horse of fire coming 
out of it with a harness made entirely of fire. When the prophet 
noticed it, he immediately rode the horse, bodily desires fell from 
him and he turned into a pure intellect without desire. He was now 
completely free from all that was connected with the physical self . 28 
And only in this purified state could Elias see Reality as it really is. 

However, Ibn ‘Arab! observes, even this supreme ‘knowledge of 
God’ ( ma'rifah bi-Allah) attained by Elias was not a perfect one. 
‘For in this (knowledge). Reality was in pure transcendence 
(munazzah), and it was merely half of the (perfect) knowledge of 
God ’. 29 This means that the pure intellect that has freed itself 
completely from everything physical and material cannot by nature 
see God except in His transcendence ( tanzih ). But transcendence is 
only one of the two basic aspects of the Absolute. Its other half is 
immanence (tashbih). All knowledge of God is necessarily one- 
sided if it does not unite transcendence and immanence, because 
God is transcendent and immanent at the same time. Who, how- 
ever, can actually unite these two aspects in this knowledge of God? 
It is, as we shall see in Chapter III, the prophet Muhammad, no one 
else, not even Elias. 

Keeping what has just been said in mind, let us try to follow the 
footsteps of Enoch-Elias in more concrete, i.e., less mythopoeic, 

As a necessary first step, one has to go down to the most elemen- 
tal level of existence in imitation of the heavenly Enoch who went 
down to the earth and began by living at the lowest level of earthly 
life. As suggested above, one must not stop halfway. Then abandon- 
ing all activity of Reason and not exercising any longer the thinking 
faculty, one fully realizes the ‘animality’ ( hayawaniyah ) which lies 
hidden at the bottom of every human being. One is, at this stage, a 
pure animal with no mixture of shallow humanity. Such a man ‘is 
freed from the sway of Reason and abandons himself to his natural 
desires. He is an animal pure and simple ’. 30 

In this state of unmixed animality, the man is given a certain kind 
of mystical intuition, a particular sort of ‘unveiling’ ( kashf ). This 
‘unveiling’ is the kind of ‘unveiling’ which is naturally possessed by 
wild animals. They experience this kind of ‘unveiling’ because, by 
nature, they do not exercise, and are therefore not bothered by, the 
faculty of Reason. 

In any case, the man who seriously intends to re-experience what 
was once experienced by Enoch-Elias must, as a first step, 
thoroughly actualize his animality; so thoroughly, indeed, that ‘in 
the end is “unveiled” to him what is (naturally) ’’unveiled” to all 

Dream and Reality 


animals except mankind and jinn. Only then can he be sure that he 
has completely actualized his animality ’. 31 

Whether a man has attained to this degree of animality may be 
known from outside by two symptoms: one is that he is actually 
experiencing the animal ‘unveiling’, and the other is that he is 
unable to speak. The explanation by Ibn ‘ Arabi of these two symp- 
toms, particularly of the first one, is quite unusual and bizarre, at 
least to our common sense. But it is difficult to deny the extraordi- 
nary weight of reality it evokes in our minds. It strikes as real 
because it is a description of his own personal experience as an 
unusual visionary. 

The first symptom, he says, of a man actually experiencing the 
animal kashf , is that ‘he sees those who are being chastised (by the 
angels) in the graves, and those who are enjoying a heavenly felicity, 
that he sees the dead living, the dumb speaking, and the crippled 
walking’. To the eye of such a man there appear strange scenes 
which our ‘sane and healthy’ Reason would unhesitatingly consider 
sheer insanity. Whether such a vision is rightly to be regarded as 
animal experience is a question about which the ordinary mind is 
not in a position to pass any judgment. For here Ibn ‘Arab! is talking 
out of his personal experience . 32 But we can easily see at least that, 
in the mind of a man who has completely liberated himself from the 
domination of natural Reason, all those petty distinctions and dif- 
ferentiations that have been established by the latter crumble away 
in utter confusion, and things and events take on entirely different 
and new forms. What Ibn ‘Arab! wants to say by all this is that all the 
seemingly watertight compartments into which Reality is divided by 
human Reason lose their ontological validity in such an ‘animal’ 

The second symptom is that such a man becomes dumb and is 
unable to express himself ‘even if he wants and tries to describe in 
words what he sees. And this is a decisive sign that he has actualized 
his animality ’ 33 Here he gives an interesting description of his own 
experience concerning this point: 

Once I had a disciple who attained to this kind of ‘unveiling’. How- 
ever, he did not keep silent about his (experience). This shows that he 
did not realize his animality (in perfect manner.) When God made 
me stand at that stage, I realized my animality completely. I had 
visions and wanted to talk about what I witnessed, but I could not do 
so. There was no actual difference between me and those who were 
by nature speechless. 

A man who has thus gone all the way to the furthest limit of 
animality, if he still continues his spiritual exercise, may rise to the state 
of pure Intellect . 34 The Reason (‘ aql ) which has been abandoned 


Sufism and Taoism 

before in order to go down to the lowest level of animality is an 
‘aql attached to and fettered by his body. And now at this second 
stage, he acquires a new ‘aql, or rather recovers possession of his 
once-abandoned ‘aql in a totally different form . The new ‘aql , which 
Ibn ‘Arabi calls ‘pure Intellect’ (‘aql mujarrad ), 35 functions on a 
level where its activity cannot be impeded by anything bodily and 
physical. The pure Intellect has nothing at all to do with the body. 
And when a man acquires this kind of Intellect and sees things with 
the eye of the pure Intellect itself, even ordinary things around him 
begin to disclose to him their true ontological structure. 

This last statement means, in terms of Ibn ‘ArabFs world-view, 
that the things around us lose their independence in the eye of such 
a man and reveal their true nature as so many ‘phenomena’ of things 
belonging to the ontological stage above them. 

(Such a man) has transformed himself into a pure Intellect away from 
all natural material elements. He witnesses things that are the very 
sources of what appears in the natural forms. And he comes to know 
by a sort of intuitive knowledge why and how the things of nature are 
just as they are . 36 

In still more concrete terms, such a man is already in the ontological 
stage above that of the things of nature. He is in the stage of the 
Divine Names and Attributes. In the language of ontology peculiar 
to Ibn ‘Arabi, he is in the stage of the ‘permanent archetypes’ (a‘yan 
thabitah ), 37 and is looking down from that height on the infinitely 
variegated things of the sensible world and understanding them in 
terms of the realities (haqaiq) that lie beyond them. 

He who has attained to this spiritual height is an ‘arif or ‘one who 
knows (the transcendental truth)’, and his cognition is rightly to be 
regarded as an authentic case oidhawq or ‘immediate tasting’. Such 
a man is already ‘complete’ (tamm). 

As we have remarked before, however, the cognition of Enoch 
was only ‘half’ of the cognition of the Absolute reality. A man of 
this kind is certainly tamm, but not yet ‘perfect’ (kamil). In order that 
he might be kamil, he has to go a step further and raise himself to a 
point where he sees that all, whether the ‘permanent archetypes’ or 
the things of nature or again he himself who is actually perceiving 
them, are after all, nothing but so many phenomenal forms of 
the Divine Essence on different levels of being; that through all the 
ontological planes, there runs an incessant and infinite flew of the 
Divine Being . 38 Only when a man is in such a position is he a ‘Perfect 
Man’ ( insan kamil). 

The above must be taken as an introduction to the major prob- 
lems of Ibn ‘Arabi and a summary exposition of the experiential 
basis on which he develops his philosophical thinking. It has, I think, 

Dream and Reality 


made clear that Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s philosophy is, in brief, a theoretic 
description of the entire world of Being as it is reflected in the eye of 
the Perfect Man. It is, indeed, an extraordinary world-view because 
it is a product of the extraordinary experience of an extraordinary 
man. How, then, does the Perfect Man, that is, a man who has been 
completely awakened, see the world? That will be the main theme 
of the following chapters. 

Before we close this chapter, however, it will not be out of place 
to look back and re-examine the major concepts that have been 
touched upon, and consider the relations that are recognizable 
among them. In so doing we have to keep in mind that we are still at 
a preliminary stage of our research, and that all we have done is 
simply to adumbrate the structure of the whole system. 

First and foremost, I would like to draw attention to a fact of 
capital importance which has been suggested in the course of the 
present chapter but not explicitly stated; namely, that the 
philosophical thought of Ibn ‘Arabi, with all its perplexing complex- 
ity and profundity, is dominated by the concept of Being. In this 
sense, his thought is, in essence, through and through ontological. 

The concept of Being in the double meaning of ens and esse is the 
highest key-concept that dominates his entire thought. His philoso- 
phy is theological, but it is more ontological than theological. That is 
why even the concept of God (Allah) itself which in Islam generally 
maintains its uncontested position is given here only a secondary 
place . 39 As we shall see presently, God is a ‘phenomenal’, i.e., 
self-manifesting, form assumed by Something still more primordial, 
the Absolute Being. Indeed, the concept of Being is the very found- 
ation of this world-view. 

However, it is by no means a common-sense notion of Being. 
Unlike Aristotle for whom also Being had an overwhelming fascina- 
tion, Ibn ‘Arab! does not start his philosophizing from the concept 
of Being on the concrete level of ordinary reality. For him, the 
things of the physical world are but a dream. His ontology begins - 
and ends - with an existential grasp of Being at its abysmal depth, 
the absolute Being which infinitely transcends the level of common 
sense and which is an insoluble enigma to the minds of ordinary 
men. It is, in short, an ontology based on mysticism, motivated by 
what is disclosed only by the mystical experience of ‘unveiling’ 

The absolute Being intuitively grasped in such an extraordinary 
experience reveals itself in an infinite number of degrees. These 
degrees or stages of Being are classified into five major ones which 
were introduced in this chapter as ‘five planes of Being’. Ibn ‘Arabi 
himself designates each of these planes of Being hadrah or ‘pres- 
ence’ . Each hadrah is a particular ontological dimension in which 


Sufism and Taoism 

the absolute Being (al-wujud al-mufiaq) manifests itself. And the 
absolute Being in all the forms of self-manifestation is referred to by 
the term haqq 

The first of these five planes of Being, which is going to be our 
topic in the next chapter, is Reality in its first and primordial 
absoluteness or the absolute Being itself. It is the Absolute before 40 
it begins to manifest itself, i.e., the Absolute in a state in which it 
does not yet show even the slightest foreboding of self- 
manifestation. The four remaining stages are the essential forms in 
which the Absolute ‘descends’ from its absoluteness and manifests 
itself on levels that are to us more real and concrete. This self- 
manifesting activity of the Absolute is called by Ibn ‘Arab! tajalli, a 
word which literally means disclosing something hidden behind a 

the first hadrah (the Absolute in its 

the second hadrah (the Absolute mani- 
festing itself as God) 

the third hadrah (the Absolute mani- 
festing itself as Lord) 

the fourth hadrah (the Absolute mani- 
festing itself as half-spiritual and 
half-material things) 

the fifth hadrah (the Absolute mani- 
festing itself as the sensible world) 

As this diagram shows, everything in Ibn ‘ArabFs world-view, 
whether spiritual of material, invisible or visible, is a tajalli of the 
Absolute except the Absolute in its absoluteness, which is, needless 
to say, not a tajalli but the very source of all tajalliyat. 

Another point to note is that these five planes constitute an 
organic system of correspondences. Thus anything found in the 
second hadrah, for example, besides being itself a ‘phenomenon’ of 
some aspect of the first hadrah , finds its ontological repercussions in 
all the three remaining hadarat each in a form peculiar to each 

It is also important to remember that the first three planes are 
purely spiritual in contrast with the fifth which is material, while the 
fourth represents a border-line between the two. 

With these preliminary notions in mind we shall turn immediately 
to the first hadrah. 

Dream and Reality 



1. Fujiis al-Hikam , p. 117/103. In quoting from the Fuju$ al-Hikam (. Fw> .), I shall 
always give two paginations: (1) that of the Cairo edition of 1321 A.H., containing 
al-Qashani’s commentary, and (2) that of Affifi’s critical edition, Cairo, 1946 (1365 

2. Fus., p. 199/104. ‘Imagination within imagination’ here means that the world as 
we perceive it is a product of our personal faculty of imagination which is active 
within the larger domain of the ‘objective’ Imagination. For a lucid and most 
illuminating exposition of the concept of Imagination in this latter sense, see Henry 
Corbin L’ imagination creatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi, Paris, 1958. 

3. Fus., p. 200/159. 

4. Fu$., p. 200/159 

5. Fuj., p. 110/99. 

6. Fu$., p. 111/99. 

7. ibid. 

8. i.e., a system of symbols pointing to the Absolute. 

9. ja'ala-ha haqqa. 

10. Fuj., p. 112/101. 

11. Fuj., p. 113/101. 

12. Fus., pp. 112-113/101. The following words of al-Qashani are found in his 
commentary, p. 113. 

13. literally, (Divine) Presences. They are the five fundamental modes or dimen- 
sions of the self-manifestation of the Absolute. 

14. p. 110. It is to be remembered that this is not the only form in which the ‘planes 
of Being’ are presented. Al-Qashani himself gives in another place a slightly different 
explanation (see later, Chapter XI). 

15. to be explained in the following chapter. 

16. to be discussed in Chapter VII together with the next plane, the plane of the 

17. This is an intermediary plane which lies between the properly Divine domain of 
Being (1,2, 3) and the material world of senses, the so-called ‘reality’ (5). It is a world 
sui generis of eternal Archetypes or Images, in which the originally formless Ideas 
assume ‘imaginal’ forms and in which the material things of our empirical world 
appear as ‘subtle ( latif ) bodies’ having been divested of their grossly material forms. 

18. p. 111/99. 

19. ibid. 


Sufism and Taoism 

20. p. 110. 

21. Commentary on the Fu$u$, p. 74. This commentary is found in the above- 
mentioned Cairo edition by Affifi. Throughout the present work, this commentary 
will be referred to as Affifi, Fu$., Com. 

22. Fu$., pp. 84-86/85-86. 

23. i.e., it is a symbol, and needs ‘interpretation’. 

24. i.e., God would not have stopped him. 

25. The last sentence means: God redeemed Isaac with a sacrificial ram. But the 
truth is that the whole matter merely looked to Abraham as ‘redeeming’ . There was, 
in fact, no ‘redeeming’ because from the beginning it was not God’s intention to 
make Abraham sacrifice his son. Since, however, Abraham had misunderstood 
God’s intention, what God did to his son was in his eyes an act of redemption. 

26. Fu$., pp. 234—235/186. 

27. Fus., p. 227/181. 

28. Fw>., p. 228/181. 

29. ibid. 

30. Fus., p. 235/186. 

31. ibid. 

32. Besides, all his statements are, in general, based on his personal experience, 
whether he explicitly says so or not. And this is one of the reasons why his description 
(of anything) is so powerful and persuasive. 

33. These words, together with the following quotation, are from Fuj., p. 235/186- 

34. i.e., a spiritual state in which the intellect (‘ aql ) is free from all physical fetters 

35. The Arabic here is a bit confusing because the same word ‘aql is used for both 
forms: the ‘physical’ or ‘natural’ ‘aql which a mystic must abandon and the pure 
‘spiritual’ ‘aql which he acquires afterwards. 

36. Fu$., p. 236/187. 

37. About the ‘permanent archetypes’ details will be given later. 

38. Fuf., p. 236/187. 

39. unless, of course, we use, as Ibn ‘Arab! himself often does, the word Allah in a 
non- technical sense as a synonym of the Absolute ( haqq ). 

40. Strictly speaking, the word ‘before’ is improper here because the ‘absoluteness’ 
is beyond all temporal relations: there can be neither ‘before nor after in the 
temporal sense. 

II The Absolute in its Absoluteness 

In religious non-philosophical discourse the Absolute is normally 
indicated by the word God ox Allah. But in the technical terminol- 
ogy of Ibn ‘Arabi, the word Allah designates the Absolute not in its 
absoluteness but in a state of determination. The truly Absolute is 
Something which cannot be called even God. Since, however, one 
cannot talk about anything at all without linguistic designation, Ibn 
‘Arabi uses the word haqq (which literally means Truth or Reality) 
in referring to the Absolute. 

The Absolute in such an absoluteness or, to use a peculiarly 
monotheistic expression, God per se is absolutely inconceivable and 
inapproachable. The Absolute in this sense is unknowable to us 
because it transcends all qualifications and relations that are 
humanly conceivable. Man can neither think of anything nor talk 
about anything without first giving it some qualification and thereby 
limiting it in some form or another. Therefore, the Absolute in its 
unconditional transcendence and essential isolation cannot be an 
object of human knowledge and cognition. In other words, as far as 
it remains in its absoluteness it is Something unknown and unknow- 
able. It is forever a mystery, the Mystery of mysteries. 

The Absolute in this sense is said to be ankar al-nakirat, i.e., ‘the 
most indeterminate of all indeterminates’, 1 because it has no qual- 
ities and bears no relation to anything beside itself. Since it is 
absolutely indeterminate and undetermined it is totally unknow- 
able. Thus the phrase ankar-nakirat means ‘the most unknown of all 
the unknown’. 

From the particular viewpoint of the Divine self-manifestation 
(tajalli) which will be one of our major topics in what follows, the 
Absolute in the state of unconditional transcendence is said to be at 
the level of ‘unity’ ( ahadiyah ). There is as yet no tajalli. Tajalli is 
only expected of it in the sense that it is to be the very source of 
tajalli which has not yet begun. And since there is actually no 
occurrence of tajalli , there is absolutely nothing recognizable here. 
In this respect the Absolute at this stage is the One ( al-ahad ). The 


24 Sufism and Taoism 

word ‘one’ in this particular context is not the ‘one which is a 
whole of ‘many’. Nor is it even ‘one’ in opposition to ‘many . It 
means the essential, primordial and absolutely unconditional sim- 
plicity of Being where the concept of opposition is meaningless. 

The stage of Unity is an eternal stillness. Not the slightest move- 
ment is there observable. The self- manifestation of the Absolute 
does not yet occur. Properly speaking we cannot speak even nega- 
tively of any self-manifestation of the Absolute except when we 
look back at this stage from the later stages of Being. The tajalli of 
the Absolute begins to occur only at the next stage, that of the 
‘oneness’ ( wahidiyah ) which means the Unity of the Many. 

It is impossible that the Absolute manifest itself in its absolute- 
ness. ‘Those who know God in the true sense assert that there can 
never be self-manifestation in the state of Unity , 2 because, not 
only in the normal forms of cognitive experience in the phenomenal 
world but also even in the highest state of mystical experience, there 
is, according to Ibn ‘Arab!, kept intact the distinction between the 
one who sees ( nazir ) and the object seen ( manzur ). Mystics often 
speak of ‘becoming one with God’, which is the so-called unio 
mystica. In the view of Ibn ‘ Arabi, however, a complete unification 
is but a fallacy on their part or on the part of those who misconstrue 
their expressions. If a mystic, for example, describes his experience 
of unio mystica by saying, ‘I have seen God through Him’ 

( Nazartu-hu bi-hi) meaning ‘I have transcended my own existence 
into God Himself and have seen Him there with his own eyes’, and 
supposing that the expression is true to what he has really experi- 
enced, yet there remains here a distinction between himself who 
sees and himself who is seen as an object. 

If, instead of saying ‘I have seen Him through Him , he said, I 
have seen Him through myself’, ( Nazartu-hu bi), does the expres- 
sion describe the experience of the Unity? No, by the very fact that 
there intervenes ‘I’ (ana) the absolute Unity is lost. What about, 
then, if he said ‘ I have seen Him through Him and myself’ ( Nazartu- 
hu bi-hi wa-bi )? Even in that case - supposing again that the 
expression is a faithful description of the mystic s experience — the 
pronominal suffix -tu (in nazartu ) meaning ‘I (did such-and-such a 
thing)’ suggests a split. That is to say, the original Unity is no longer 
there. Thus in every case ‘there is necessarily a certain relation 
which requires two elements: the subject and object of seeing. And 
this cannot but eliminate the Unity, even if (the mystic in such an 
experience) only sees himself through himself’. 3 

Thus even in the highest degree of mystical experience, that of 
unio, the prime Unity must of necessity break up and turn into 
duality. The Absolute on the level of Unity, in other words, remains 
for ever unknowable. It is the inescapable destiny of the human act 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 


of cognition that, whenever man tries to know something, there 
comes in a particular relation, a particular condition which impedes 
an immediate grasp of the object. Man is unable to know anything 
without taking up some position, without looking at it from some 
definite point. The Absolute, in its absoluteness, however, is pre- 
cisely Something which transcends all such relations and aspects. 

Is it impossible, then, for man to say even a word about the Abso- 
?■ lute? Can we not predicate anything at all of the absolute Absolute? 
| As is clear from what has just been said, strictly speaking no predi- 
cation is possible. Philosophically, however, there is one single thing 
which we predicate of the Absolute on this level. It is ‘being’. As 
long as it is a word with a meaning, it also delimits and specifies the 
Absolute. But within the boundaries of philosophical thinking, 
‘being’ is the most colorless - and therefore the least specifying 
predication thinkable. It describes the Absolute with the highest 
degree of unconditionality. 

The Absolute viewed from this standpoint is called by Ibn ‘Arab! 
dhat 4 or ‘essence’. The world dhat in this context means absolute 
Being (wujud mu(laq), Being qua Being, or absolute Existence, that 
is, Existence viewed in its unconditional simplicity. As the epithet 
‘absolute’ indicates, it should not be taken in the sense of a limited 
and determined existent or existence; it means Something beyond 
all existents that exist in a limited way, Something lying at the very 
source of all such existents existentiating them. It is Existence as the 
ultimate ground of everything. 

The ontological conception of the Absolute is a basic thesis that 
runs through the whole of the Fu$us. But Ibn ‘Arabi in this book 
does not deal with it as a specifically philosophic subject. On behalf 
of the Master, al-QashanT explains the concept of dhat scholastic- 
ally. He considers it one of the three major ideas that concern the 
very foundation of Ibn ‘ ArabF s thought. The whole passage which is 
reproduced here is entitled ‘an elucidation of the true nature of the 
Essence at the level of Unity’. 5 

The Reality called the ‘Essence at the level of Unity’ ( al-dhat al- 
ahadiyah) in its true nature is nothing other than Being (wujud) pure 
and simple in so far as it is Being. It is conditioned neither by 
non-determination nor by determination, for in itself it is too sacred 
(muqaddas) to be qualified by any property and any name. It has no 
quality, no delimitation; there is not even a shadow of multiplicity in 

It is neither a substance nor an accident, for a substance must have a 
quiddity other than existence, a quiddity by which it is a substance as 
differentiated from all other existents, and so does an accident which, 
furthermore, needs a place (i.e., substratum) which exists and in 
which it inheres. 


Sufism and Taoism 

And since everything other than the Necessary Being ( wajib ) is either 
a substance or an accident, the Being qua Being cannot be anything 
other than the Necessary Being. Every determined (i.e., non- 
necessary) being is existentiated by the Necessary Being. Nay, it is 
essentially [no other than the Necessary Being] 6 ; it is entitled to be 
regarded as ‘other’ than the Necessary Being only in respect of its 
determination. (Properly speaking) nothing can be ‘other’ than it in 
respect to its essence. 

Such being the case (it must be admitted that in the Necessary Being) 
existence is identical with essence itself, for anything which is not 
Being qua Being is sheer non-Being (‘ adam ). And since non-Being is 
‘nothing’ pure and simple, we do not have to have recourse, in order 
to distinguish Being qua Being from non-Being, to a particular act of 
negation, namely, the negation of the possibility of both being com- 
prehended under a third term . 7 Nor does Being ever accept non- 
Being; otherwise it would, after accepting non-Being, be existence 
which is non-existent. Likewise, pure non-Being, on its part, does not 
accept Being. Besides, if either one of them (e.g., Being) accepted its 
contradictory (e.g., non-Being) it would turn into its own contradic- 
tory (i .e., non-Being) while being still actually itself (i.e., Being). But 
this is absurd. 

Moreover, in order that anything may ‘accept’ something else there 
must necessarily be multiplicity in it. Being qua Being, however, does 
not include any multiplicity at all. That which does accept Being and 
non-Being is (not Being qua Being but) the ‘archetypes’ ( a'yan ) and 
their permanent states in the intelligible world, becoming visible with 
Being and disappearing with non-Being. 

Now everything (in the concrete world of ‘reality’) is existent through 
Being. So in itself such an existent is not Being. Otherwise when it 
comes into existence, we would have to admit that its existence had 
already existence even before its own (factual) existence. But Being 
qua Being is from the beginning existent, and its existence is its own 
essence. Otherwise, its quiddity would be something different from 
existence, and it would not be Being. If it were not so, then (we would 
have to admit that) when it came into existence, its existence had an 
existence (i.e., as its own quiddity) even before its own existence. 
This is absurd. 

Thus Being itself must necessarily exist by its own essence, and not 
through existence of some other thing. Nay, it is that which makes 
every other existent exist. This because all other things exist only 
through Being, without which they would simply be nothing at all. 

It is important to notice that al-Qashani in this passage refers to 
three categories of Being; (1) Being qua Being, that is, absolute 
Being, (2) the archetypes, and (3) the concrete beings or existents of 
the sensible world. This triple division is a faithful reflection of the 
main conception of Ibn ‘Arabi himself. In the Fu$u$, he does not 
present a well-organized ontological discussion of this problem 
from this particular point of view. It is nonetheless one of the 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 


cardinal points of his philosophy. A concise systematic presentation 
is ound in his short treatise, Kitab Insha’ al-Dawa’ir . 8 There he 
mentions the three categories, or, as he calls them, three ‘degrees’ 
or ‘strata’ (maratib), of Being, and asserts that there can be no other 
ontological category. These three are: (1) the absolute Being (2) the 
limited and determined Being, and (3) something of which neither 
Being nor non-Being can be predicated. The second of the three is 
the world of the sensible things while the third, which he says can 
neither be said to exist nor not to exist, is the world of the 

As for the ontological nature of the archetypes and the sensible 
things we shall have occasions to discuss it in detail later on. The first 
degree of Being alone is what interests us in the present context. 

Know that the things that exist constitute three degrees, there being 
no other degree of Being. Only these three can be the objects of our 
knowledge, for anything other than these is sheer non-Being which 
can neither be known nor be unknown and which has nothing at all to 
do with anything whatsoever. 

With this understanding I would assert that of these three 
(categories) of things the first is that which possesses existence by 
itself, i.e., that which is existent per se in its very essence. The 
existence of this thing cannot come from non-Being; on the contrary, 
it is the absolute Being having no other source than itself. Otherwise, 
that thing (i.e., the source) would have preceded it in existence’ 
Indeed, it is the very source of Being to all the things that exist; it is 
their Creator who determines them, divides them and disposes them. 

It is, in brief, the absolute Being with no limitations and conditions. 
Praise be to Him! He is Allah, the Living, the Everlasting, the 
Omniscient, the One, who wills whatever He likes, the Omnipotent . 9 

It is remarkable that Ibn ‘Arabi, in the concluding sentence of the 
passage just quoted, explicitly identifies the absolute Being with 
Allah, the Living, Omniscient, Ominpotent God of the Qoran. It 
indicates that he has moved from the ontological level of discourse 
with which he began to the religious level of discourse peculiar to 
the living faith of the believer. 

As we have remarked before, the Reality in its absoluteness is, in 
Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysical-ontological system, an absolutely 
unknowable Mystery that lies far beyond the reach of human cogni- 
tion. Properly speaking, in the name of Allah we should see the 
self-manifestation ( tajalli ) of this Mystery already at work, 
although, to be sure, it is the very first beginning of the process and 
is, in comparison with the remaining levels of tajalli, the highest and 
the most perfect form assumed by the Mystery as it steps out of its 
abysmal darkness. However, from the viewpoint of a believer who 
talks about it on the level of discourse directly connected with his 


Sufism and Taoism 

living faith, the absolute Being cannot but take the form of 
Allah. Existence per se cannot in itself be an object of religious 

This fact makes it also clear that whatever we want to say about 
the absolute Being and however hard we try to describe it as it really 
is, we are willy-nilly forced to talk about it in one aspect or another 
of its self-manifestation, for the Absolute in the state of non- 
manifestation never comes into human language. The absolute 
Reality in itself remains for ever a ‘hidden treasure , hidden in its 
own divine isolation. 

It will be natural, then, that, from whatever point of view we may 
approach the problem, we see ourselves ultimately brought back to 
the very simple proposition from which we started*, namely , that the 
Absolute in its absoluteness is essentially unknown and unknow- 
able. In other words, the inward aspect of the Absolute defies every 
attempt at definition. One cannot, therefore, ask, What is the 
Absolute?’ And this is tantamount to saying that the Absolute has 
no ‘quiddity’ ( mahiyah ).'° 

This, however, does not exclude the possibility of a believer 
justifiably asking what is the mahiyah of God. But the right answer 
to this question can take only one form. And that sole answer is, 
according to Ibn ‘ Arabi, represented by the answer given by Moses 
in the Qoran. 

The reference is to XXVI (23-24) where Moses, asked by 
Pharaoh, ‘And what is the Lord of the worlds?’ ( Ma rabbu al- 
‘alamina?), answers, ‘The Lord of the heavens and earth and what is 
between them’. Ibn ‘Arab! considers the question hurled at Moses 
by Pharaoh (‘ What is ...?’) as a philosophical one asking about the 
mahiyah of God, asking for a definition of God. And he gives the 
situation of this dialogue quite an original interpretation. 

He argues: this question was asked by Pharaoh not because he 
was ignorant, but simply because he wanted to try Moses. Knowing 
as he did to what degree a true apostle of God must know about 
God, Pharaoh wanted to try Moses as to whether the latter was truly 
an apostle as he claimed to be. Moreover, he was sly enough to 
attempt cheating those who were present, that is, he designed the 
question in such a way that, even if Moses were a genuine apostle, 
those present would get the impression of Moses being far inferior 
to Pharaoh, for it was to be expected from the very beginning that 
Moses - or anybody else for that matter - could not in any case give 
a satisfactory answer to the question. However, Ibn Arabi does not 
clarify the point. On his behalf, al-Qashani gives the following 
explanation. 12 

By asking, ‘What is God?’, Pharaoh gave those who were there 
the impression that God had somehow a mahiyah in addition to His 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 


existence. The onlookers were thereby led to the idea that, since 
God had a mahiyah , a true apostle must know it and must, there- 
fore, be able to give a satisfactory answer to the question. Since, 
however, there can be no ‘definition’ ( hadd ) of God in the logical 
sense, a true apostle - if he is a true apostle, and not a fraud - can 
never give a ‘satisfactory’ answer in the form of a definition. But in 
the eyes of those who are not conversant with the real nature of the 
problem, a vague non-definitive answer is a sign indicating that the 
man who gives such an answer is not a real ‘knower’. 

Now the actual answer given by Moses runs: ‘the Lord of the 
heavens and earth and what is between them”. This is just the right 
answer and the only possible and the most perfect answer in this 
case. It is, as Ibn ‘Arabi puts it, ‘the answer of those who truly know 
the matter’. Thus Moses in his answer said what there was really to 
be said . And Pharaoh, too, knew perfectly well that the right answer 
could not be anything other than this. Superficially, however, the 
answer looks as if it were not a real answer. So Pharaoh achieved his 
aim of producing the impression in the minds of the onlookers that 
Moses was ignorant of God, while he, Pharaoh, knew the truth 
about God. 

Is it wrong, then, philosophically to ask, ‘What is God?’ as 
Pharaoh did? No, Ibn ‘Arabi says, 13 the question in this form is not 
at all wrong in itself. To ask about the mahiyah of something is 
nothing other than asking about its reality or real essence. And 
God does possess reality. Strictly speaking, asking about the 
mahiyah of something is not exactly the same as asking for its logical 
definition. To ask about the mahiyah of a thing, as understood by 
Ibn ‘Arabi, is to ask about the reality ( haqiqah ) of that object, which 
is unique and not shared by anything else. 14 ‘Definition’ in the 
logical sense is different from this. It consists of a combination of a 
genus and a specific difference, and such a combination is thinkable 
only in regard to things (i.e., universal) that allow of common 

Anything, therefore, that has no logical genus in which to belong 
cannot be ‘defined’ , but this does not in any way prevent such a thing 
having its own unique reality which is not common to other things. 
More generally speaking, ‘there is nothing’, as al-Qashani 
observes, 15 ‘that has not its own reality ( haqiqah ) by which it is just 
as it is to the exclusion of all other things. Thus the question (what is 
God?) is a perfectly justifiable one in the view of those who know 
the truth. Only those who do not possess real knowledge assert that 
anything that does not admit of definition cannot be asked as to 
“what” (ma) it is’. 

Moses, in reply to the question: ‘What is God?’, says that He is 
‘the Lord of the heavens and earth and what is between them, if you 


Sufism and Taoism 

have a firm faith’. Ibn ‘Arabi sees here ‘a great secret’ ( sirr kabir) 
that is to say, a profound and precious truth hidden under a seem- 
ingly commonplace phrase. 

Here is a great secret. Observe that Moses, when asked to give an 
essential definition ( hadd dhatl ), answered by mentioning the ‘act’ 
(fi'l )' 6 of God. 

Moses, in other words, identified 17 the essential definition (of God) 
with the (essential) relation of God to the forms of the things by 
which He manifests Himself in the world or the forms of the things 
which make their appearance in Him. Thus it is as though he said, in 
reply to the question: ‘What is the Lord of the worlds?’, ‘It is He in 
whom appear all the forms of the worlds ranging from the highest - 
which is the heaven - to the lowest - which is the earth, or rather the 
forms in which He appears ’. 18 

Pharaoh, as the Qoran relates, sets out to show that such an answer 
can come only from a man who is ignorant of God or who has but a 
superficial knowledge of God. He tries thereby to prove in the 
presence of his subjects his superiority over Moses. The latter, 
against this, emphasizes that God is ‘the Lord of the East and West 
and what is between them, if you but have understanding’ (XXVI, 
28 ). 

This second statement of Moses is interpreted by Ibn ‘Arabi in 
such a way that it turns out to be a symbolic expression of his own 
ontology. The East, he says, is the place from which the sun makes 
its appearance. It symbolizes the visible and material aspect of 
theophany. The West is the place into which the sun goes down to 
conceal itself from our eyes. It symbolizes the invisible aspect (i.e., 
ghayb) of the self-manifestation of the Absolute. And these two 
forms of theophany, visible and invisible, correspond to the two 
great Names of God: the Outward (al-zahir) and the Inward ( al - 
batin). The visible theopany constitutes the world of concrete mat- 
erial things (‘ alam al-ajsam ), while the invisible theophany results in 
the rise of the non-material spiritual world (‘alam al-arwah). Natu- 
rally ‘what lies between the East and West’ would refer to those 
forms that are neither purely material nor purely spiritual, that 
is, what Ibn ‘Arabi calls amthal or Images on the level of 
Imagination . 19 

Here Ibn ‘Arabi draws attention to a fact which seems to him to 
be of decisive importance; namely that, of the two answers given by 
Moses, the first is qualified by a conditional clause: ‘if you have a 
firm faith’ . 20 This indicates that the answer is addressed to those who 
have yaqin, i.e., the ‘people of unveiling’ (kashf) and immediate 
unitative knowledge ( wujud ). 21 Thus in the first answer Moses 
simply confirms what the true ‘knowers’ have yaqin about. What, 
then, is the content of this yaqin which Moses is said simply to be 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 


confirming here? The answer is given by al-Qashani in the following 
way . 22 

The truth of the matter is that it is an impossibility to give a direct 
answer to the question about the reality of God without any refer- 
ence to any relation. Thus Moses, instead of anwering directly to the 
question asked concerning the mahlyah (of God), mentions the act 
(of theophany). He thereby indicates that the Absolute is above all 
limitation and definition, and that it does not come under any genus 
nor can it be distinguished by any specific difference because it 
comprehends the whole in itself. 

So (instead of trying to define the Absolute) Moses has recourse to an 
explication of the reality of the Lordship ( rububiyah ). In this way 
(instead of explaining God) he is content with explaining what is 
attributed to Him, namely with stating that He is the One to whom 
belongs the Lordship of the world of the higher spirits, the world of 
the lower objects and all the determinations, relations and attribu- 
tions that lie between the two worlds. He states that God is the 
Outward by his Lordship over all and the Inward by his inmost nature 
(huwiyah, lit. ‘He-ness’) which resides in all, because He is the very 
essence of everything that is perceived in any form of experience. 
Moses makes it clear that the definition of God is impossible except in 
this way, that is, except by putting Him in relation to all without 
limitation or to some (particular things). This latter case occurs when 
he says (for example): ‘(He is) your Lord and the Lord of your 
ancient ancestors' . 

In contrast to the first answer which is of such a nature, the second 
one is qualified by a different conditional clause: ‘if you have 
understanding’ , or more precisely ‘if you know how to exercise your 
reason ’. 23 This clause indicates that the second answer is addressed 
to those who understand everything by Reason (‘ aql ), those, in 
other words, who ‘bind and delimit’ things 24 in their understanding. 
These people are those whom Ibn ‘Arab! calls ‘the people of 
binding, limiting and restricting’ (ahl ‘aql wa-taqyid wa-hasr ). 
These are the people who grasp any truth only through arguments 
created by their own reason, i.e., the faculty of setting formal 

The gist of both the first and the second answer consists in 
identifying the object asked about (i.e., the Absolute) with the very 
essence of the world of Being. Moses, to put it in another way, tried 
to explain the Absolute in its self-revealing aspect, instead of mak- 
ing the futile effort to explain it in its absoluteness. Pharaoh who 
asked that question - apart from his bad intention - and Moses who 
replied as he did, were right each in his own way. When Pharaoh 
asked him ‘What is God?’ Moses knew that what Pharaoh was 
asking for was not a ‘definition’ of God in the philosophical or 
logical sense. Therefore he did give the above-mentioned answers. 

32 Sufism and Taoism 

If he had thought that Pharaoh’s intention was to ask for a 
definition, he would not have answered at all to the question, 
but would have pointed out to Pharaoh the absurdity of such a 
question . 25 

All this has, I think, made it clear that for Ibn ‘ ArabI the Absolute in 
its absoluteness is an ‘absolute mystery’ ( ghayb mutlaq), and that 
the only way to approach the Absolute is to look at it in its self- 
revealing aspect. Is it then possible for us to see the Absolute itself 
at least in this latter aspect? Will the Unknown-Unknowable trans- 
form itself into Something known and knowable? The answer, it 
would seem, must be in the affirmative. Since, according to a Tradi- 
tion, the ‘hidden treasure’ unveils itself because it ‘desires to be 
known’ , self- manifestation must mean nothing other than the Abso- 
lute becoming knowable and known. 

But, on the other hand, the Absolute in this aspect is no longer the 
Absolute in itself, for it is the Absolute in so far as it reveals itself. In 
Ibn ‘Arabi’s world-view, the world of Being consists of material 
objects ( ajsam , sg. jism) and non-material or spiritual beings 
( arwah , sg. ruh). Both these categories are the forms of self- 
manifestation assumed by the Absolute. In this sense everything, 
whether material or spiritual, reveals and discloses the Absolute in 
its own way. However, there is a certain respect in which these 
things cover up the Absolute as thick impenetrable veils in such a 
way that the Absolute hides itself behind them and is invisible in 
itself. As a famous Tradition says: ‘God hides Himself behind 
seventy thousand veils of light and darkness. If He took away these 
veils, the fulgurating lights of His face would at once destroy the 
sight of any creature who dared to look at it.’ 

In referring to this Tradition, Ibn ‘Arabi makes the following 

remark : 26 

Here God describes Himself (as being concealed) by veils of dark- 
ness, which are the physical things, and by (veils) of light, which are 
fine spiritual things, for the world consists of ‘coarse’ things and ‘fine’ 
things, so that the world in itself constitutes a veil over itself. Thus the 
world does not see the Absolute as directly as it sees its own self . 27 
The world, in this way, is forever covered by a veil which is never 
removed. Besides (it is covered by) its knowledge (or consciousness) 
that it is something different and distinct from its Creator by the fact 
that it stands in need of the latter . 28 But (in spite of this inner need) it 
cannot participate in the essential necessity which is peculiar to the 
existence of the Absolute and can never attain it. 

Thus the Absolute remains for this reason forever unknowable by an 
intimate knowledge, because no contingent being has access to it 
(i.e., the essential necessity of the Absolute). 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 33 

Here again we come across the eternal paradox: the things of the 
world, both material and non-material, are, on the one hand, so 
many forms of the Divine self-manifestation, but on the other, they 
act exactly as veils hindering a (complete) self-manifestation of 
God. They cover up God and do not allow man to see Him directly. 

In this latter sense, the created world in relation to the absolute 
Absolute is referred to in the Qoran by the pronoun ‘they’ (hum). 
Hum is grammatically a ‘pronoun of absence’ . It is a word designat- 
ing something which is not actually present. The creatures, in other 
words, are not there in the presence of the Absolute. And this 
‘absence’ precisely is the ‘curtain’. 

The recurring Qoranic phrase hum alladhina kafaru ‘they are 
those who cover up’ means, according to the interpretation of Ibn 
‘Arabi, nothing other than this situation of ‘absence’. The verb 
kafara in the Qoran stands in opposition to amana ‘to believe in’, 
and signifies ‘infidelity’ or ‘disbelief’. But etymologically the verb 
means ‘to cover up’. And for Ibn ‘Arabi, who takes the word in this 
etymological meaning, alladhina kafaru does not mean ‘those who 
disbelieve (in God)’ but ‘those who cover and veil’. Thus it is an 
expression referring to people who, by their ‘absence’, conceal the 
Absolute behind the curtain of their own selves . 29 

The whole world, in this view, turns out to be a ‘veil’ (hijab) 
concealing the Absolute behind it. So those who attribute Being to 
the world enclose the Absolute within the bounds of a number of 
determinate forms and thereby place it beyond a thick veil. When, 
for example, the Christians assert that ‘God is Messiah, Son of 
Mary’ (V, 72), they confine the Absolute in an individual form and 
lose sight of the absoluteness of the Absolute. This makes them 
absent from the Absolute, and they veil it by the personal form of 
Messiah. It is in the sense that such people are Kafirs, i.e., ‘those 
who cover up (-Hhose who disbelieve )’. 30 

The same thing is also explained by Itj>n ‘Arabi in another interest- 
ing way. The key-concept here is the Divine self-manifestation 
(tajalli). And the key-symbol he uses is that of a mirror, which 
incidentally, is one of his most favorite images. 

The Absolute, ‘in order that it be known’, discloses itself in the 
world. But it discloses itself strictly in accordance with the require- 
ment of each individual thing, in the form appropriate to and 
required by the nature of ‘preparedness’ ( isti‘dad ) of each indi- 
vidual existent. There can absolutely be no other form of self- 
manifestation. And when the locus, i.e., the individual thing in 
which the Absolute discloses itself happens to be a human being 
endowed with consciousness, he sees by intuition the self-revealing 

34 Sufism and Taoism 

Absolute in himself. Yet, since it is after all the Absolute in a 
particular form determined by his own ‘preparedness’ , what he sees 
in himself is nothing other than his own image or form (surah ) l as 
mirrored in the Absolute. He never sees the Absolute itself. His 
Reason may tell him that his own image is visible there reflected in 
the Divine mirror, but, in spite of this consciousness based on 
reasoning, he cannot actually see the mirror itself; he sees only 

The Divine Essence (dhat) discloses itself only in a form required by 
the very ‘preparedness’ of the locus in which occurs the self- 
manifestation. There can be no other way. 

Thus the locus of the Divine self-manifestation does not see any- 
thing, other than its own form as reflected in the mirror of the 
Absolute It does not see the Absolute itself. Nor is it at all possible 
for it to do so, although it is fully aware of the fact that it sees its own 

form only in the Absolute. . 

This is similar to what happens to a man looking into a mirror in the 
empirical world. When you are looking at forms or your own form in 
a mirror you do not see the mirror itself, although you know well that 
you see these forms or your own form only in the mirror. 

Thus we are faced with a curious fact that the forms or images of 
things in a mirror, precisely because they are visible, intervene 
between our eyesight and the mirror and act as a veil concealing t e 
mirror from our eyes. 

This symbol (of mirror) has been put forward by God as a particularly 
appropriate one for His essential self-manifestation so that the per- 
son who happens to be the locus of this Divine self-manifestation 
might know what exactly is the thing he is seeing. Nor can there be a 
symbol closer than this to (the relation between) contemplation (on 
the part of man) and self-manifestation (on the part of God). 

(If you have some doubt of this) try to see the body of the mirror 
while looking at an image in it. You will not be able to do so, nevei. 

So much so that some people who have experienced this with regard 
to images reflected in the mirror maintain that the form seen in the 
mirror stands between the eyesight of the person who is looking and 
the mirror itself. This is the furthest limit which (an ordinary intel- 
lect) can reach . 31 

Thus the view that the image in the mirror behaves as a ‘veil 
concealing the mirror itself is the highest knowledge attainable by 
ordinary people; that is, by those who understand things through 
their intellect. But Ibn ‘ Arabi does not forget to suggest in the same 
breath that for those who are above the common level of under- 
standing there is a view which goes one step further than this. The 
deepest truth of the matter, he says, is represented by a view which 
he already expounded in his al-Futuhdt al-Makkiyah. 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 


The ‘deepest truth’ here referred to is explained by al-Qashani as 
follows: 32 

That which is seen in the mirror of the Absolute is the form of the 
man who is looking; it is not the form of the Absolute. To be sure, it is 
no other than the very Essence of the Absolute that discloses itself to 
his eye, but this self-manifestation is done in his (i.e., the man’s) 
form, not in its (i.e., the Essence’s) form. 

However, the form seen in (the mirror of) His Essence is far from 
constituting a veil between Him and the man who is looking. On the 
contrary, it is the Essence at the level of Unity ( ahadiyah ) disclosing 
itself to the man in his form. And shallow indeed is the view of those 
who assert in connection with the (symbol of the) mirror that the 
form (seen) works as a veil between it and the man who sees (the 
form therein). 

And al-Qashani adds that a deep understanding of this nature is 
only obtainable in the experience of immediate vision and ‘unveil- 
ing’. This may be explained somewhat more theoretically and 
briefly in the following manner. 

The image reflected in the mirror of the Absolute has two differ- 
ent aspects. It is, in the first place, a self-manifestation of the 
Absolute in a particular form in accordance with the demand of the 
‘preparedness’ of the locus. But in the second place, it is the Form of 
the Divine self-manifestation, however much it may be particular- 
ized by the demand of the locus. The reflected image behaves as a 
concealing veil because the spiritual eye of an ordinary man is 
riveted to the first of these aspects. And as the second aspect looms 
in the consciousness of the man through the profound experience of 
‘unveiling’ the reflected image ceases to be a veil, and the man 
begins to see not only his own image but the Form of the Absolute 
assuming the form of his own. 

This, Ibn ‘Arabi asserts, is the highest limit beyond which the 
human mind is never allowed to go. 33 

Once you have tasted this, you have tasted the utmost limit beyond 
which there is no further stage as far as concerns the creatures. So do 
not covet more than this. Do not make yourself weary by trying to go 
up further than this stage, for there is no higher stage than this. 
Beyond this there is sheer nothing. 

We may remark that the ‘highest limit’ here spoken of is the stage 
peculiar to the Perfect Man. Even for the Perfect Man there can be 
no spiritual stage realizable at which he is able to know the Absolute 
as it really is, i.e., in its absoluteness. Yet, such a man is in a position 
to intuit the Absolute as it reveals itself in himself and in all other 
things. This is the final answer given to the question: To what extent 
and in what form can man know the Absolute? 


Sufism and Taoism 

And this will be the only and necessary conclusion to be reached 
concerning the metaphysical capability of the Perfect Man if we are 
to start from the basic assumption that Divine Essence ( dhat ) and 
Unity ( ahadiyah ) are completely identical with each other in indi- 
cating one and the same thing, namely, the Absolute in its absolute- 
ness as the highest metaphysical stage of Reality. There is, however, 
another theoretical possibility. If, following some of the outstanding 
philosophers of the school of Ibn ‘ Arabi, we are to divide the highest 
level of Reality into two metaphysical strata and distinguish be- 
tween them as (1) dhat, the absolute Absolute and (2) ahadiyah 
which, although it is still the same absolute Absolute, is a stage 
lower than dhat in the sense that it represents the Absolute as it is 
turning toward self-manifestation - then, we should say that the 
Perfect Man in his ecstatic experience is capable of knowing the 
Absolute qua Absolute just before it reveals itself in eidetic and 
sensible forms, that is, the Absolute at the stage of ahadiyah, though 
to be sure the Absolute at the stage of dhat still remains unknown 
and unknowable. 


1. Fuj., p. 238/188. We may remark in this connection that in another passage (p. 
188) Ibn ‘Arabi uses the same phrase, ankar al-nakirat , in reference to the word shay ’ 
‘thing’. He means thereby that the concept of ‘thing’ is so indeterminate that it is 
comprehensive of anything whatsoever. 

2. Fuy., p. 95/91. 

3. ibid. 

4. Here and elsewhere in this book in the conceptual analysis of the Absolute at the 
stage of absoluteness I follow the tradition of those who completely identify the 
metaphysical stage of dhat with that of ahadiyah, like Qashani and Qaysari. It is to be 
remarked that there are others (like Jill) who distinguish between dhat and ahadiyah . 
For them, dhat is the absolute Absolute while ahadiyah is the next metaphysical stage 
at which the Absolute discloses itself as the ultimate source of tajalti. 

5. Fu$., Com., p. 3. 

6. The printed text is here obviously defective. I read: bal huwa bi-i‘tibdr al-haqiqah 
[‘ aynu-hu , wa-ghayru-hu ] bi-itibar al-ta‘ayyun. 

7. because there cannot be a wider concept that would comprehend within itself 
both Being and non-Being. 

8. K.S., H.S. Nyberg, ed., Leiden, 1919, p. 15 et. sqq. 

9. ibid. 

The Absolute in its Absoluteness 


10. Mahiyah from Ma hiya? meaning ‘what is it?’ corresponding to the Greek 
expression to ti en einai. 

11. Fuy., p. 259/207-208. 

12. p. 259. 

13. Fu$., pp. 259-260/208. 

14. It is to be noted that in Islamic philosophy in general the mahiyah ‘what-is-it- 
ness’ is of two kinds: (1) mahiyah ‘in the particular sense’ and (2) mahiyah ‘in a 
general sense’ . The former means ‘quiddity’ to be designated by the definition, while 
the latter means ontological ‘reality’, that which makes a thing what it is. 

15. p. 260. 

16. i.e., the act of ‘Lordship’ which in the philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi means the act of 
self-manifestation in the concrete phenomena of the world. 

17. i.e., replaced the definition of God by the mentioning of the relation of God to 
His phenomenal forms. 

18. Fuy., pp. 260/208. 

19. Fuy., p. 260/208-209. Concerning ‘what lies between the East and West’, 
however, Ibn ‘ Arabi in this passage simply says that it is intended to mean that God is 
Omniscient (bi kull shay’ ‘alim). 

20. in kuntum muqinin, the last word being a derivative of the same root YQN from 
which is derived the word yaqin. Yaqin means a firm conviction in its final form. 

21. ahl al-kashfwa-al- wujud . The word wujud here does not mean ‘existence’, but a 
particular stage in myscal experience which follows that of wajd. In wajd, the mystic is 
in the spiritual state of ‘self-annihilation’ ( fana ), a state in which he has lost his 
individual consciousness of the self, while in wujud he is in the state of ‘subsistence’ 
(baqa’) in the Absolute. Only in this latter state does the mystic ‘finds’ ( wajada ) God 
in the true sense, cf. Affifi, Fuy., Com., p. 310. 

22. p. 260. 

23. in kuntum ta qilun ', the last word comes from the root from which is derived the 
word ‘aql ‘reason’. 

24. The verb aqala meaning ‘to understand by reason or intellect’ etymologically 
means to bind the folded legs of a camel to his thighs (in order to prevent him from 
moving freely’. 

25. Fuj., p. 260/208-209. 

26. Fuy., p. 22/54-55. 

27. i.e., the only possible way in which we can see the Absolute is through the 
things , yet, on the other hand, since what we actually and directly see are the 

‘things’, they intervene between our sight and the Absolute. Thus indirectly we see 
the Absolute, but directly we see only the things which prevent our direct vision of the 


Sufism and Taoism 

28. We feel at every moment that we are in need of our Creator for our existence. 
This very feeling produces in us the consciousness of separation or distinction 
between us and the Absolute. 

29. Fus ., p. 188/148-149. 

30. Cf. Qashani, p. 189. 

31. Fus., p. 33/61-62. 

32. p. 33. 

33. Fu$., p. 33/62. 

Ill The Self-knowledge of Man 

It has been made clear by the preceding that the Absolute perse is 
unknowable and that it remains a dark mystery even in the mystical 
experience of ‘unveiling’ ( kashf ) and ‘immediate tasting’ ( dhawq ). 
Under normal conditions the Absolute is knowable solely in its 
forms of self-manifestation. The same thing may be expressed 
somewhat differently by saying that man is allowed to know the 
Absolute only when the latter descends to the stage of ‘God’. In 
what follows the structure of this cognition will be analyzed. The 
m central question will be: How and where does the absolutely 
I unknowable appear as ‘God’? 

i Answering this question Ibn ‘ Arabi emphatically asserts that the 
only right way of knowing the Absolute is for us to know ourselves. 
And he bases this view on the very famous Tradition which runs: 
‘He who knows himself knows his Lord ’. 1 What is suggested is, for 
Ibn ‘Arabi, that we should abandon the futile effort to know the 
| Absolute per se in its absolute non-manifestation, that we must go 

f back into the depth of ourselves, and perceive the Absolute as it 
■ manifests itself in particular forms. 

I In Ibn ‘ Arabi’s world-view, everything, not only ourselves but all 

l the things that surround us, are so many forms of the Divine 
self-manifestation. And in that capacity, there is objectively no 
essential difference between them. Subjectively, however, there is a 
remarkable difference. All the exterior things surrounding us are 
I for us ‘things’ which we look at only from outside. We cannot 
penetrate into their interior and experience from inside the Divine 
life pulsating within them . Only into the interior of ourselves are we 
able to penetrate by our self-consciousness and experience from 
inside the Divine activity of self-manifestation which is going on 
there. It is in this sense that to ‘know ourselves’ can be the first step 
toward our ‘knowing the Lord’ . Only he who had become conscious 
of himself as a form of the Divine self-manifestation is in a position 
to go further and delve deep into the very secret of the Divine life as 
it pulsates in every part of the universe. 

However, not all self-knowledge of man leads to the utmost limit 


Sufism and Taoism 

of knowledge of the Absolute. Ibn ‘Arab! in this respect roughly 
divides into two types the way of knowing the Absolute through 
man’s self-knowledge. The first is ‘knowledge of the Absolute 
(obtainable) in so far as (“thou” art) “thou” ’ (ma‘rifah bi-hi min 
hayth anta ), while the second is ‘knowledge of the Absolute 
(obtainable) through “thee” in so far as (“thou” art) “He , and not 
in so far as (“thou” art) “thou” ’ (ma‘rifah bi-hi min hayth huwa la 

min hayth anta). n , 

The first type is the way of reasoning by which one inters uoa 

from ‘thee’, i.e., the creature. More concretely it consists in one s 
becoming first conscious of the properties peculiar to the creatural 
nature of ‘thou’ , and then attaining to knowledge of the Absolute by 
the reasoning process'of casting away all these imperfections from 
the image of the Absolute and attributing to it all the opposite 
properties. One sees, for example, ontological possibility in oneself, 
and attributes to the Absolute ontological necessity which is its 
opposite; one sees in oneself ‘poverty’ ( iftiqar ), i.e., the basic need 
in which one stands of things other than oneself, and attributes to 
the Absolute its opposite, that is, ‘richness’ (, ghina ) or absolute 
self-sufficiency; one sees in oneself incessant ‘change’, and attri- 
butes to the Absolute eternal constancy, etc. This type of know- 
ledge, Ibn ‘Arab! says, is characteristic of philosophers and 
theologians, and represents but an extremely low level of the know- 
ledge of God, though, to be sure, it is a kind of ‘knowing one s Lord 

by knowing oneself’ . . . , D . 

The second type, too, is knowledge of ‘Him’ through thee . But 
in this case the emphasis is not on ‘thee’ but definitely on Him . it 
consists in one’s knowing the Absolute - albeit in a particularize 
form - by knowing the ‘self’ as a form of the direct self- 
manifestation of the Absolute. It is the cognitive process by which 
one comes to know God by becoming conscious of oneself as God 
manifesting Himself in that particular form. Let us analyze this 
process in accordance with Ibn ‘Arabi’s own description. Three 
basic stages are distinguished here. 

The first is the stage at which man becomes conscious of the Abso- 
lute as his God. 

If from the Divine Essence were abstracted all the relations (i.e., the 
Names and Attributes), it would not be a God (ilah). But what 
actualizes these (possible) relations (which are recognizable in the 
Essence) are ourselves. In this sense it is we who, with our own inner 
dependence upon the Absolute as God, turn it into a ‘God .bo the 
Absolute cannot be known until we ourselves become known. To this 
refer the words of the Prophet: ‘He who knows himself knows his 
Lord’ . This is a saying of one who of all men knows best about God. 

The Self-knowledge of Man 


What is meant by this passage is as follows. The nature of the 
Absolute perse being as it is, the Absolute would remain for ever an 
unknown and unknowable Something if there were no possibility of 
its manifesting itself in infinitely variegated forms. What are gener- 
ally known as ‘Names’ and ‘Attributes’ are nothing but theological 
expressions for this infinite variety of the possible forms of self- 
manifestation of the Absolute. The Names and Attributes are, in 
oth^r words, a classification of the unlimited number of relations in 
which the Absolute stands to the world. 

These relations, as long as they stay in the Absolute itself, remain 
in potential they are not in actu. Only when they are realized as 
concrete forms in us, creatures, do they become ‘actual’. The 
Names, however, do not become realized immediately in individual 
material things, but first within the Divine Consciousness itself in 
the form of permanent archetypes. Viewed from the reverse side, it 
would mean that it is our individual essences (i.e., archetypes) that 
actualize the Absolute. And the Absolute actualized in this way is 
God. So ‘we (i.e., our permanent archetypes), turn the Absolute 
into God’ by becoming the primal objects or loci of the Divine 
self-manifestation. This is the philosophical meaning of the dictum: 
‘Unless we know ourselves, God never becomes known.’ 

Some of the sages - Abu Hamid 4 is one of them - claim that God can 
be known without any reference to the world. But this is a mistake. 
Surely, the eternal and everlasting Essence can (conceptually) be 
known (without reference to the world), but the same Essence can 
never be known as God unless the object to which it is God (i.e., the 
world) is known, for the latter is the indicator of the former . 5 

The commentary of al-Qashani makes this point quite explicit. He 
says : 6 

What is meant by Ibn ‘Arabi is that the essence in so far as it is 
qualified by the attribute of ‘divinity’ ( uluhiyah ) cannot be known 
except when there is the object to which it appears as God . . . Surely, 
our Reason can know (by inference) from the very idea of Being itself 
the existence of the Necessary Being which is an Essence eternal and 
everlasting, for God in His essence is absolutely self-sufficient. But 
not so when it is considered as the subject of the Names. In the latter 
case the object to which He is God is the only indicator of His being 

The knowledge that the whole created world is no other than a 
self-manifestation of the Absolute belongs to the second stage, 
which is described by Ibn ‘Arabi in the following terms : 7 

After the first stage comes the second in which the experience of 
‘unveiling’ makes you realize that it is the Absolute itself (and not the 


Sufism and Taoism 

world) that is the indicator of itself and of its being God (to the 
world). (You realize also at this stage) that the world is nothing but a 
self-manifestation of the Absolute in the forms of the permanent 
archetypes of the things of the world. The existence of the archetypes 
would be impossible if it were not for the (constant) self- 
manifestation of the Absolute, while the Absolute, on its part, goes 
on assuming various forms in accordance with the realities of the 
archetypes and their states. 

This comes after (the first stage at which) we know that the Absolute 
is God. 

Already at the first stage the Absolute was no longer Something 
unknown and unknowable, but it was ‘our God . Yet, there was an 
essential breach between the Absolute as God and the world as the 
object to which it appeared as God. The only real tie between the 
two was the consciousness that we, the world, are not self-subsistent 
but essentially dependent upon God and that we, as correlatives of 
the Absolute qua God, are indicators of the Names and Attributes 
and are thereby indirectly indicators of the Absolute. 

At the second stage, such an essential breach between God and 
the world disappears. We are now aware of ourselves as self- 
manifestations of the Absolute itself. And looking back from this 
point we find that what was (as the first stage) thought to be an 
indicator-indicated relation between God and the object to which 
the Absolute appeared as God is nothing but an indicator-indicated 
relation between the Absolute in its self-manifesting aspect and the 
Absolute in its hidden aspect. Here I give a more philosophical 
formulation of this situation by al-Qashani. 8 

When by Divine guidance Reason is led to the conclusion that there 
must exist the Necessary Being existing by itself away from all others, 
it may, if aided by good chance, attain the intuition that it is nothing 
but this real Necessary Being that is manifesting itself in the form of 
the essence of the world itself. Then it realizes that the very first 
appearance of this Necessary Being is its self-manifestation in the 
One Substance or the One Entity 9 in which are prefigured all the 
forms of the permanent archetypes in the Divine Consciousness, and 
that they (i.e., the archetypes) have no existence independently of 
the Necessary Being , 10 but have an eternal, everlasting existence in 
the latter. And to these archetypes are attributed all the Attributes of 
the Necessary Being as so many Names of the latter, or rather as so 
many particularizing determinations of it. Thus only through the 
archetypes do the Names become (actually) distinguishable and 
through their appearance does Divinity (i.e., the Necessary Being s 
being God) make its appearance. And all this occurs in the forms of 
the world. The Absolute in this way is the Outward (appearing 
explicitly) in the form of the world and the Inward (appearing invis- 

The Self-knowledge of Man 


ibly) in the forms of the individual essences of the world. But it is 
always the same Entity making its appearance (in diverse forms). The 
Absolute here behaves as its own indicator. Thus after having known 
| (at the first stage) that the Absolute is our God, we now know (at the 

| second stage) that it diversifies into many kinds and takes on various 

I I forms according to the realities of the archetypes and their various 

I states, for, after all, all these things are nothing else than the Absolute 

I itself (in its diverse forms.) 

In this interesting passage al-Qashani uses the phrase ‘the first 
appearance’ (al-zuhur al-awwal), i.e., the first self-manifestation of 
the Absolute, and says that it means the Absolute being manifested 
in the ‘ One Substance’ . This, in fact, refers to a very important point 
in Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysics, namely, the basic distinction between 
two kinds of self-manifestation ( tajalliyyan ): (1) self-manifestation 
in the invisible (tajalli ghayb ) and (2) self-manifestation in the 
l visible (tajalli shahadah). 11 

| The first of these two is the self-manifestation of the Essence 
within itself. Here the Absolute reveals itself to itself. It is, in other 


words, the first appearance of the self-consciousness of the Abso- 
| lute. And the content of this consciousness is constituted by the 

I permanent archetypes of things before they are actualized in the 

outward world, the eternal forms of things as they exist in the Divine 
Consciousness. As we shall see later in detail, Ibn ‘ArabI calls this 
type of the self-manifestation of the Absolute ‘the most holy ema- 
nation’ ( al-fayd al-aqdas ), the term ‘emanation’ {fayd) being for 
Ibn ‘ArabI always synonymous with ‘self-manifestation’ ( tajalli ). 14 

This is a (direct) self-manifestation of the Essence ( tajalli dhatiy ) of 
which invisibility is the reality. And through this self-manifestation 
I the ‘He-ness’ is actualized . 13 One is justified in attributing ‘He-ness’ 

to it on the ground that (in the Qoran) the Absolute designates itself 
by the pronoun ‘He’. The Absolute (at this stage) is eternally and 
everlastingly ‘He’ for itself . 14 

: It is to be remarked that the word ‘He’ is, as Ibn ‘ArabI observes, a 

; pronoun of ‘absence’. This naturally implies that, although there 

| has already been self-manifestation, the subject of this act still 

remains ‘absent’, i.e., invisible to others. It also implies that, since it 
is ‘He’, the third person, the Absolute here has already split itself 
; into two and has established the second ‘itself’ as something other 
than the first ‘itself’. However, all this is occurring only within the 
Consciousness of the Absolute itself. It is, at this stage, ‘He’ only to 
' itself; it is not ‘He’ to anybody or anything else. The Consciousness 
of the Absolute is still the world of the invisible ( ‘alam al-ghayb ). 
The second type of self-manifestation, the tajalli shahadah, is 


Sufism and Taoism 


different from this. It refers to the phenomenon of the permanent 
archetypes which form the content of the Divine Consciousness 
coming out of the stage of potentiality into the outward world of 
‘reality’. It means the actualization of the archetypes in concrete 
forms. In distinction from the first type, this second type of self- 
manifestation is called by Ibn ‘Arab! ‘the holy emanation’ (al-fayd 
al-muqaddas ). And the world of Being thus realized constitutes the 
world of sensible experience (‘alam al-shahadah). 

So much for the second stage of man’s ‘knowing his Lord by 
knowing himself’ . Now we turn to the third and the last of the three 
stages distinguished above. 

Let us begin by quoting a short description of the third stage by Ibn 
‘Arab! himself . 15 

Following these two stages there comes the final ‘unveiling’. There 
our own forms will be seen in it (i.e., the Absolute) in such a way that 
all of us are disclosed to each other in the Absolute. All of us will 
recognize each other and at the same time be distinguished from one 

The meaning of this somewhat enigmatic statement may be 
rendered perfectly understandable in the following way. To the eye 
of a man who has attained this spiritual stage there arises a scene of 
extraordinary beauty. He sees all the existent things as they appear 
in the mirror of the Absolute and as they appear one in the other. 
All these things interflow and interpenetrate in such a way that they 
become transparent to one another while keeping at the same time 
each its own individuality. This is the experience of ‘unveiling’ 

We may remark in this connection that al-Qashani divides the 
‘unveiling’ into two stages . 16 

The first ‘unveiling’ occurs in the state of ‘self-annihilation’ ( fana ’) in 
the Absolute. In this state, the man who sees and the object seen are 
nothing other than the Absolute alone. This is called unification’ 
{jam). The second ‘unveiling’ is ‘subsistence’ ( baqa ) after ‘self- 
annihilation’. In this spiritual state, the forms of the created world 
make their appearance; they make their appearance one to the other 
in the Absolute itself. Thus the Reality here plays the role of a mirror 
for the creatures. And the One Being diversifies itself into many 
through the innumerable forms of the things. The reality (of the 
mirror) is the Absolute and the forms (appearing in it) are creatures. 
The creatures in this experience know one another and yet each is 
distinguished from others. 

Al-QashanI goes on to say that of those whose eyes have been 
opened by the second- 4 unveiling’, some attain the state of perfec- 

The Self-knowledge of Man 

tion’ ( kamal ). These are men ‘who are not veiled by the sight of the 
creatures from the Absolute and who recognize the creaturely 
Many in the very bosom of the real Unity of the Absolute’. These 
are the ‘people of perfection’ (ahl al- kamal) whose eyes are not 
veiled by the Divine Majesty (i.e., the aspect of the phenomenal 
Many) from the Divine Beauty (i.e., the aspect of the metaphysical 
One), nor by the Divine Beauty from the Divine Majesty. The last 
point is mentioned with particular emphasis in view of the fact that, 
according to al-Qashani’s interpretation, the first ‘unveiling’ con- 
sists exclusively in an experience of Beauty ( jamal ), while the 
second is mainly an experience of Majesty ( jalal ), so that in either 
case there is a certain danger of mystics emphasizing exclusively 
either the one or the other. 

The first ‘unveiling’ brings out Beauty alone. The subject who 
experiences it does not witness except Beauty . . . Thus he is nat- 
urally veiled by Beauty and cannot see Majesty. 

But among those who experience the second ‘unveiling’ there are 
some who are veiled by Majesty and cannot see Beauty. They tend to 
imagine and represent the (state of affairs) on this level in terms of 
the creatures as distinguished from the Absolute, and thus they are 
veiled by the sight of the creatures from seeing the Absolute. 

The same situation is described in a different way by Ibn ‘Arabi 
himself by a terse expression as follows : 17 

Some of us (i.e., the ‘people of perfection’) are aware that this 
(supreme) knowledge about us 18 (i.e., about the phenomenal Many) 
occurs in no other than the Absolute. But some of us (i.e., mystics 
who are not so perfect) are unaware of the (true nature of this) 
Presence (i.e., the ontological level which is disclosed in the baqa- 
experience) in which this knowledge about us (i.e., the phenomenal 
Many) occurs to us . 19 I take refuge in God from being one of the 

By way of conclusion let us summarize at this point the interpreta- 
tion given by Ibn ‘Arabi to the Tradition: ‘He who knows himself 
knows his Lord’. 

He begins by emphasizing that the self-knowledge of man is the 
absolutely necessary premise for his knowing his Lord, that man’s 
knowledge of the Lord can only result from his knowledge of 

What is important here is that the word ‘Lord’ ( rabb ) in Ibn 
‘ Arabi’ s terminology means the Absolute as it manifests itself 
through some definite Name. It does not refer to the Essence which 
surpasses all determinations and transcends all relations. Thus the 
dictum: ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord’ does not in any way 
suggest that the self-knowledge of man will allow man to know the 


Sufism and Taoism 

Absolute in its pure Essence. Whatever one may do, and however 
deep one’s experience of ‘unveiling’ may be, one is forced to stop at 
the stage of the ‘Lord’. Herein lies the limitation set to human 

cognition. . . 

In the opposite direction, however, the same human cognition is 
able to cover an amazingly wide field in its endeavor to know the 
Absolute. For, after all, the self-revealing Absolute is, at the last 
and ultimate stage of its activity, nothing but the world in which we 
live And ‘every part of the world’ is a pointer to its own ontologica 
ground, which is its Lord .’ 20 Moreover, man is the most perfect of all 
the parts of the world. If this most perfect part of the world comes to 
know itself through self-knowledge or self-consciousness, it wi 
naturally be able to know the Absolute to the utmost limit of 
possibility, in so far as the latter manifests itself in the world . 21 

There still seems to remain a vital question: Is man really capable of 
knowing himself with such profundity? This, however, is a relative 
question. If one takes the phrase ‘know himself’ in the most rigor- 
ous sense, the answer will be in the negative, but if one takes it in a 
loose sense, one should answer in the affirmative. As Ibn ‘Arabi 
says, ‘You are right if you say Yes, and you are right if you say No. 


1. Man ‘arafa nafsa-hu ‘arafa rabba-hu. 

2. i.e., all the attributes peculiar to the created things as ‘possible’ and ‘contingent 

3. Fus-, p. 73/81. 

4. al-Ghazall. 

5. Fu$., p. 74/81. 

6. p. 74. 

7. Fus-, p. 74/81—82. 

8. p. 74. 

9 This does not mean the absolute One at the level of primordial Unity which has 
already been explained above. The ‘One’ referred to here is the One containing in a 
unified form all the Names before they become actually differentiated. It is, in brief, 
the unity of Divine Consciousness in which exist all the archetypes of the things of the 
world in the form of the objects of Divine Knowledge. 

The Self-knowledge of Man 


10. Since the archetypes are no other than the very content of the Divine Con- 
sciousness as prefigurations of the things of the world, they cannot exist outside the 
Divine Consciousness. 

11. Fus., pp. 145-146/120-121. 

12. That is to say, the term ‘emanation’ should not be taken in the usual neo- 
Platonic sense. 

13. Asa result of the ‘most holy emanation’ the Absolute establishes itself as ‘He’. 
And as the Divine ‘He’ is established, the permanent archetypes of all things are also 
established as the invisible content of the ‘He’ -consciousness of God. 

14. Fus., p. 146/120. 

15. Fus., p. 74/82. 

16. pp. 74-75. 

17. Fus., P- 74/82. 

18. The ‘(supreme) knowledge about us’ refers back to what has been mentioned 
above; namely, the extraordinary scene of all the existent things penetrating each 
other while each keeping its unique individuality. 

19. This means that the phenomenal Many, being as it is Divine Majesty, is no less 
an aspect of the Absolute than the metaphysical One appearing as Divine Beauty. 
The knowledge of the phenomal Many through baqa’ is no less a knowledge of the 
Absolute than the knowledge of the metaphysical One through fana’. 

20. Fus., p- 267/215. 

21. Cf. Affifi, Fus., Com., p. 325. 

Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 


IV Metaphysical Unification and 
Phenomenal Dispersion 

What the preceding chapters have made clear may briefly be sum- 
marized by saying (1) that the Absolute has two aspects opposed to 
each other: the hidden and the self- revealing aspect; (2) that the 
Absolute in the former sense remains for ever a Mystery and 
Darkness whose secret cannot be unveiled even by the highest 
degree of fo*s/t/-experience; (3) that the Absolute comes fully into 
the sphere of ordinary human cognition only in its self-revealing 
aspect in the form of ‘God’ and ‘Lord’; and (4) that between these 
two is situated a particular region in which things ‘may rightly be 
said to exist and not to exist’, i.e., the world of the permanent 
archetypes, which is totally inaccessible to the mind of an ordinary 
man but perfectly accessible to the ecstatic mind of a mystic. This 
summary gives the most basic structure of Ibn ‘Arabi’s world-view 
from the ontological standpoint. 

Since the hidden aspect of the Absolute can neither be known nor 
described, the whole of the rest of the book will naturally be 
concerned with the self-revealing aspect and the intermediate re 
gion. But before we proceed to explore these two domains which are 
more or less accessible to human understanding, we must consider 
the radical opposition between the hidden and the self-revealing 
aspect of the Absolute from a new perspective. The analysis will 
disclose an important phase of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought. 

From this new perspective Ibn ‘Arab! calls the hidden and the 
self-revealing aspect tanzih and tazhbih, respectively. These are two 
key-terms taken from the terminology of the traditional Islamic 
theology. Both terms played an exceedingly important role m 
theology from the earliest times of its historical formulation. Tanzih 
(from the verb nazzaha meaning literally ‘to keep something away 
from anything contaminating, anything impure ) is used in theology 
in the sense of ‘declaring or considering God absolutely free from all 
imperfections’. And by ‘imperfections’ is meant in this context all 
qualities that resemble those of creatures even in the slightest 

Tanzih in this sense is an assertion of God’s essential and absolute 
incomparability with any created thing, His being above all crea- 
turely attributes. It is, in short, an assertion of Divine transcen- 
dence. And since the Absolute per se, as we have seen, is an 
Unknowable which rejects all human effort to approach it and 
frustrates all human understanding in any form whatsoever, the 
sound reason naturally inclines toward tanzih . It is a natural attitude 
of the Reason in the presence of the unknown and unknowable 

In contrast to this, tashbih (from the verb shabbaha meaning ‘to 
make or consider something similar to some other thing’) means in 
theology ‘to liken God to created things’. More concretely, it is a 
theological assertion posited by those who, on the basis of the 
Qoranic expressions suggesting that ‘God has hands, feet, etc.’, 
attribute corporeal and human properties to God. Quite naturally it 
tends to turn toward crude anthropomorphism. 

In traditional theology, these two positions are, in their radical 
forms, diametrically opposed and cannot exist together in harmony. 
One is either a ‘transcendentalist’ ( munazzih , i.e., one who exer- 
cises tanzih) or an ‘anthropomorphist’ ( mushabbih , i.e., one who 
chooses the position of tashbih, and holds that God ‘sees with His 
eyes’, for example, and ‘hears with His ears’, ‘speaks with His 
tongue’ etc.). 

Ibn ‘Arabi understands these terms in quite an original manner, 
though of course there still remains a reminiscence of the meanings 
they have in theological contexts. Briefly, tanzih in his terminology 
indicates the aspect of ‘absoluteness’ ( iflaq ) in the Absolute, while 
tashbih refers to its aspect of ‘determination’ (taqayyud). 1 Both are 
in this sense compatible with each other and complementary, and 
the only right attitude is for us to assert both at the same time and 
with equal emphasis. 

Of all the prophets who preceded Muhammad in time, Ibn ‘Arabi 
mentions Noah as representative of the attitude of tanzih. Quite 
significantly, Ibn ‘Arabi entitles the chapter in his Fu$ii$ , in which he 
deals with Noah, ‘the transcendentalist wisdom ( hikmah sub- 
buhiyyah) as embodied in the prophet Noah’. 2 ) 

According to the Qoran, Noah in the midst of an age in which 
obstinate and unbridled idol-worship was in full sway, denied the 
value of the idols, openly exhorted the worship of the One God, and 
advocated monotheism. In other words, he emphasized throughout 
his life the principle of tanzih. This attitude of Noah, in the view of 
Ibn ‘Arabi, was an historical necessity and was therefore quite 
justifiable. For in his age, among his people, polytheism was so 
rampant that only a relentless exhortation to a pure and extreme 



Sufism and Taoism 

Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 

tanzih could have any chance of bringing the people back to the 
right form of religious belief. 

Apart from these historical considerations, however, tanzih as a 
human attitude toward God is definitely one-sided. Any religious 
belief based exclusively on tanzih is essentially imperfect and 
incomplete. For to ‘purify’ God to such an extent and to reduce Him 
to something having nothing at all to do with the creatures is 
another way of delimiting Divine Existence which is actually 
infinitely vast and infinitely profound. ‘Tanzih' , as Ibn ‘Arab! says , 3 
‘in the opinion of the people who know the truth, is nothing less than 
delimiting and restricting God’. This sentence is explained by al- 
Qashanl as follows : 4 

Tanzih is distinguishing the Absolute from all contingent and physi- 
cal things, that is, from all material things that do not allow of tanzih. 

But everything that is distinguished from some other thing can only 
be distinguished from it through an attribute which is incompatible 
with the attribute of the latter. Thus such a thing (i.e., anything that is 
distinguished from others) must necessarily be determined by an 
attribute and delimited by a limitation. All tanzih is in this sense 

The gist of what is asserted here is the following. He who ‘purifies’ 
God purifies Him from all bodily attributes, but by that very act he is 
(unconsciously) ‘assimilating’ ( tashbih ) Him with non-material, 
spiritual beings. What about, then, if one ‘purifies’ Him from ‘limit- 
ing’ ( taqyid ) itself? Even in that case he will be ‘limiting’ Him with 
‘non-limitation’ ( i(laq ), while in truth God is ‘purified’ from (i.e., 
transcends) the fetters of both ‘limitation’ and ‘non-limitation’. He is 
absolutely absolute; He is not delimited by either of them, nor does 
He even exclude either of them. 

Ibn ‘ Arabi makes a challenging statement that ‘anybody who exer- 
cises and upholds tanzih in its extreme form is either an ignorant 
man or one who does not know how to behave properly toward 

As regards the ‘ignorant’, Ibn ‘Arabi gives no concrete example. 
Some of the commentators, e.g., Bali Efendi , 5 are of the opinion 
that the word refers to the Muslim Philosophers and their blind 
followers. These are people, Bali Effendi says, who ‘do not believe 
in the Divine Law, and who dare to ‘purify’ God, in accordance with 
what is required by their theory, from all the attributes which God 
Himself has attributed to Himself’ . 

As to ‘those who do not know how to behave properly’, we have 
Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s own remark. They are ‘those of the people who believe 
in the Divine Law (i.e., Muslims) who “purify” God and do not go 
beyond tanzih ’ . They are said to be behaving improperly because 
‘they give the lie to God and the apostles without being conscious of 

it’. Most probably this refers to the Mu‘tazilite theologians 6 who are 
notorious for denying the existence of Attributes in the Essence of 
God. They are believers, but they recklessly go to this extreme 
driven by the force of their own reasoning, and end by completely 
ignoring the aspect of tashbih which is so explicit in the Qoran and 

Now to go back to the story of Noah which has been interrupted. 
The kind of tanzih symbolized by Noah is an attitude peculiar to, 
and characteristic of, Reason. Al-Qashani calls it ‘ tanzih by Reason’ 
(al- tanzih al-‘aqliy). Reason, by nature, refuses to admit that the 
Absolute appears in a sensible form. But by doing so it overlooks a 
very important point, namely, that ‘purifying’ the Absolute from all 
sensible forms is, as we have seen a few lines back, not only tan- 
tamount to delimiting it but is liable to fall into a kind of tashbih 
which it detests so violently. 

Commenting upon a verse by Ibn ‘Arab! which runs: ‘Every time 
(the Absolute) appears to the eye (in a sensible form), Reason 
expels (the image) by logical reasoning in applying which it is always 
so assiduous’, al-Qashanl makes the following remark : 7 

The meaning of the verse is this: Whenever (the Absolute) manifests 
itself ( tajalli ) in a sensible form, Reason rejects it by logical reason- 
ing, although in truth it (i.e., the sensible phenomenon) is a reality (in 
its own way) on the level of the sensible world as well as in itself (i.e., 
not merely qua a sensible phenomenon but in its reality as an authen- 
tic form of the self-manifestation of the Absolute). Reason ‘purifies’ 
it from being a sensible object because otherwise (the Absolute) 
would be in a certain definite place and a certain definite direction. 
Reason judges (the Absolute) to be above such (determinations). 
And yet, the Absolute transcends what (Reason) ‘purifies’ it from, as 
it transcends such a ‘purifying’ itself. For to ‘purify’ it in this way is to 
assimilate it to spiritual beings and thereby delimit its absoluteness. It 
makes the Absolute something determinate. 

The truth of the matter is that the Absolute transcends both being in a 
direction and not being in a direction, having a position and not 
having a position; it transcends also all determinations originating 
from the senses, reason, imagination, representation and thinking. 

Besides this kind of tanzih symbolized by Noah, which is ‘ tanzih by 
Reason’ , Ibn ‘Arab! recognizes another type of tanzih. This latter is 
Tanzih of immediate tasting’ (al-tanzih al-dhawqiy), and is symbol- 
ized by the above-mentioned prophet Enoch. 

The two types of tanzih correspond to two Names: the one is 
subbuh which has been mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, 
and the other is quddus, the ‘Most Holy ’. 8 Both are tanzih , but the 
one symbolized by Noah is ‘purifying’ the Absolute from any partners 


Sufism and Taoism 

and from all attributes implying imperfection, while the sec- 
ond, in addition to this kind of tanzih , removes from the Absolute all 
properties of the ‘possible’ beings (including even the highest per- 
fections attained by ‘possible’ things) and all connections with mat- 
eriality as well as any definite quality that may be imaginable and 
thinkable about the Absolute . 9 

The second type of tanzih represents the furthest limit of ‘subtrac- 
tion’ ( tajrid ) which attributes to the Absolute the highest degree of 
transcendence. According to Ibn ‘Arabi, the prophet Enoch was 
literally an embodiment of such tanzih. Depicting the mythological 
figure of Enoch as a symbol of this kind of tanzih, al-Qashani 
says : 10 

Enoch went to the extreme of ‘subtracting’ himself (i.e., not only did 
he ‘subtract’ everything possible and material from the Absolute, but 
he ‘subtracted’ all such elements from himself) and ‘spiritualization’ 
(tarawwuh), so much so that in the end he himself was turned into a 
pure spirit. Thus he cast off his body, mixed with the angels, became 
united with the spiritual beings of the heavenly spheres, and 
ascended to the world of Sanctity. Thereby he completely went 
beyond the ordinary course of nature. 

In contrast to this, al-Qashani goes on to say, Noah lived on the 
earth as a simple ordinary man with ordinary human desires, got 
married and had children. But Enoch became himself a pure spirit. 

All the desires fell off from him, his nature became spiritualized, the 
natural bodily properties were replaced by spiritual properties. The 
assiduous spiritual discipline completely changed his nature, and he 
was transformed into a pure unmixed Intellect {‘aql mujarrad). And 
thus he was raised to a high place in the fourth Heaven. 

In less mythological terminology this would seem to imply that the 
tanzih of Noah is that exercised by the Reason of an ordinary man 
living with all his bodily limitations, while that of Enoch is a tanzih 
exercised by the pure Intellect or mystical Awareness existing apart 
from bodily conditions. 

Intellect, being completely released from the bondage of body, 
works, not as the natural human faculty of logical thinking, but as a 
kind of mystical intuition. This is why its activity is called ‘ tanzih of 
immediate tasting’. In either of the two forms, however, tanzih, in 
Ibn ArabFs view, is one-sided and imperfect. Only when combined 
with tashbih does it become the right attitude of man toward the 
Absolute. The reason for this is, as has often been remarked above, 
that the Absolute itself is not only an absolute Transcendent but 
also Self-revealer to the world in the world. 

The Absolute has an aspect in which it appears in each creature. Thus 
it is the Outward making itself manifest in everything intelligible. 


Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 

while being, at the same time, an Inward concealing itself from every 
intelligence except in the mind of those who hold that the world is its 
Form and its He-ness as (a concrete manifestation of) the Name ‘the 

This passage is reproduced by al-Qashani in a more explicitly articu- 
late form as follows : 12 

The Absolute appears in every creature in accordance with the 
‘preparedness’ (i.e., natural capacity) of that particular creature. It is 
in this sense the Outward appearing in everything intelligible in 
accordance with the ‘preparedness’ of the individual intelligence. 
And that (i.e., the particular ‘preparedness’) is the limit of each 
intelligence. . . . 

But (the Absolute) is also the Inward, (and in that capacity it is) never 
accessible to the intelligence beyond the limit set by the latter’s own 
‘preparedness’. If the intelligence attempts to go beyond its natural 
limit through thinking, that is, (if it tries to understand) what is 
naturally concealed from its understanding, the heart goes off the 
track, except in the case of the real sages whose understanding has no 
limit. Those are they who understand the matter of God from God, 
not by means of thinking. Nothing is ‘inward’ (i.e., concealed) from 
their understanding. And they know that the world is the Form or 
He-ness of the Absolute, that is, its inward reality, manifesting itself 
outwardly under the Name ‘the Outward’. For the Divine Reality 
(haqiqah) in its absoluteness can never be ‘ He-ness’ except in view of 
a determination (or limitation), be it the determination of ‘absolute- 
ness’ itself, as is exemplified by the Qoranic words: ‘He is God, the 

As to the Divine Reality qua Divine Reality, it is completely free 
from any determination, though (potentially) it is limited by all the 
determinations of the Divine Names. 

Not only does the Absolute manifest itself in everything in the world 
in accordance with the ‘preparedness’ of each, but it is the ‘spirit’ 
(ruh) of everything, its ‘inward’ ( bafin ). This is the meaning of the 
Name ‘the Inward’ . And in the ontological system of Ibn ‘Arabi, the 
Absolute’s constituting the ‘spirit’ or ‘inward’ of anything means 
nothing other than that the Absolute manifests itself in the 
archetype (or the essence) of that thing. It is a kind of self- 
manifestation ( tajalli ) in no less a degree than the outward tajalli. 
Thus the Absolute, in this view, manifests itself both internally and 

(The Absolute) is inwardly the ‘spirit’ of whatever appears outwardly 
(in the phenomenal world). In this sense, it is the Inward. For the 
relation it bears to the phenomenal forms of the world is like that of 
the soul (of man) to his body which it governs . 13 

The Absolute in this aspect does manifest itself in all things, and the 


Sufism and Taoism 

latter in this sense are but so many ‘determined (or limited)’ forms 
of the Absolute. But if we, dazzled by this, exclusively emphasize 
‘assimilation’ ( tashbih ), we would commit exactly the same mistake 
of being one-sided as we would if we should resort to tanzih only. 
‘He who “assimilates” the Absolute delimits and determines the 
Absolute in no less a degree than he who “purifies” it, and is 
ignorant of the Absolute’. 14 As al-Qashani says: 15 

He who ‘assimilates’ the Absolute confines it in a determined form, 
and anything that is confined within a fixing limit is in that very 
respect a creature. From this we see that the whole of these fixing 
limits (i.e., concrete things), though it is nothing other than the 
Absolute, is not the Absolute itself. This because the One Reality 
that manifests itself in all the individual determinations is something 
different from these determinations put together. 

Only when one combines tanzih and tashbih in one’s attitude, can 
one be regarded as a ‘true knower’ (‘arif) of the Absolute. Ibn 
‘Arabi, however, attaches to this statement a condition, namely, 
that one must not try to make this combination except in a general, 
unspecified way, because it is impossible to do otherwise. Thus 
even the ‘true knower’ knows the Absolute only in a general 
way, the concrete details of it being totally unknown to him. This 
may be easily understood if one reflects upon the way man knows 
himself. Even when he does have self-knowledge, he knows himself 
only in a general way; he cannot possibly have a comprehensive 
knowledge of himself in such a way that it would cover all the details 
of himself without leaving anything at all. Likewise no one can 
have a truly comprehensive knowledge of all the concrete details of 
the world, but it is precisely in all these forms that the self- 
manifestation of the Absolute is actualized. Thus tashbih must of 
necessity take on a broad general form; it can never occur in a 
concretely specified way. 16 

As to the fact that the Absolute manifests itself in all, i.e., all that 
exists outside us and inside us, Ibn ‘Arab! adduces a Qoranic verse 
and adds the following remark: 17 

God says (in the Qoran): ‘We will show them Our signs 18 in the 
horizon as well as within themselves so that it be made clear to them 
that it is Reality’ (XLI, 53). Here the expression ‘signs in the horizon’ 
refers to all that exists outside yourself, 19 while ‘within themselves’ 
refers to your inner essence. 20 And the phrase: ‘that it is Reality’ 
means that it is Reality in that you are its eternal form and it is your 
inner spirit. Thus you are to the Absolute as your bodily form is to 

The upshot of all this is the view mentioned above, namely, that the 
only right course for one to follow in this matter is to couple tanzih 


Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 55 

and tashbih. To have recourse exclusively to tashbih in one’s con- 
ception of the Absolute is to fall into polytheism; to assert tanzih to 
the exclusion of tashbih is to sever the divine from the whole 
created world. The right attitude is to admit that, ‘thou art not He 
(i.e., the phenomenal world is different from the Absolute), nay 
thou art He, and thou seest Him in concretely existent things 
absolutely undetermined and yet determined’ . 21 And once you have 
attained this supreme intuitive knowledge, you have a complete 
freedom of taking up the position either of ‘unification’ ( jam" , lit, 
‘gathering’) or of ‘dispersion’ ( farq , lit. ‘separating’), 22 Concerning 
these two terms, yam’, and farq, al-Qashani remarks: 23 

Taking up the position of ‘unification’ means that you turn your 
attention exclusively to the Absolute without taking into considera- 
tion the creatures. This attitude is justified because Being belongs to 
the Absolute alone, and any being is the Absolute itself. 

(The position of ‘dispersion’ means that) you observe the creatures in 
the Absolute in the sense that you observe how the essentially One is 
diversified into the Many through its own Names and determinations. 
The position of ‘dispersion’ is justified in view of the creaturely 
determinations (of the Absolute) and the involvement of the ‘He- 
ness’ of the Absolute in the ‘This-ness’ (i.e., concrete determina- 
tions) of the created world. 

I? The distinction between ‘unification’ and ‘dispersion’, thus 
explained by al-Qashani, is an important one touching upon a 
cardinal point of Ibn ‘Arabi’s ontology. As we already know, the 
distinction is more usually expressed by tanzih and tashbih . We shall 
now examine the distinction and relation between the two in more 
H detail and from a somewhat different angle. 

Ibn ‘Arabi starts from a well-known and oft-quoted Qoranic verse: 
Laysa ka-mithli-hi shay’un, wa-huwa al-samiu al-bafir meaning 
‘there is nothing like unto Him, and He is All-hearing, All-seeing’ 
(XLII, 11), which he interprets in an original way. The interpreta- 
tion makes it clear from every aspect that tanzih and tashbih should 
be combined if we are to take the right attitude toward God. 

Let us start by observing that the verse grammatically allows of 
two different interpretations, the pivotal point being the second 
term ka-mithli-hi, which literally is a complex of three words: ka 
‘like’ mithli ‘similar to’, and hi ‘Him’. 

The first of these three words, ka ‘like’, can syntactically be 
interpreted as either (1) expletive, i.e., having no particular mean- 
ing of its own in the combination with mithli which itself connotes 
similarity or equality, or (2) non-expletive, i.e., keeping its own 
independent meaning even in such a combination. 

If we choose (1), the first half of the verse would mean, ‘there is 


Sufism and Taoism 

nothing like Him’ with an additional emphasis on the non-existence 
of anything similar to Him. It is, in other words, the most emphatic 
declaration of tanzih. And in this case, the second half of the verse: 
‘and He is All-hearing, All-seeing’ is to be understood as a state- 
ment of tashbih, because ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’ are pre-eminently 
human properties. Thus the whole verse would amount to a combi- 
nation of tanzih and tashbih. 

If we choose the second alternative, the first half of the verse 
would mean the same thing as laysa mithla-mithli-hi shay’ meaning 
‘there is nothing like anything similar to Him’. Here something 
‘similar to Him’ is first mentally posited, then the existence of 
anything ‘similar’ to that (which is similar to Him) is categorically 
denied. Since something similar to Him is established at the outset, 
it is a declaration of tashbih. And in this case, the second half of the 
verse must be interpreted as a declaration of tanzih . This interpreta- 
tion is based on the observation that the sentence structure - with 
the pronominal subject, huwa ‘He, put at the head of the sentence, 
and the following epithets, samV (hearing) and basir (seeing) being 
determined by the article, al- (the) - implies that He is the only 
sami’ and the only basir in the whole world of Being . 24 Thus, here 
again we get a combination of tanzih and tashbih. 

The following elliptic expression of Ibn ‘ Arabi will be quite easily 
understood if we approach it with the preceding explanation in 
mind . 25 

God Himself ‘purifies’ (i.e., tanzih) by saying: laysa ka-mithli-hi shay , 
and ‘assimilates’ (i.e., tashbih) by saying: wa-huwa al-samV al-ba$ir. 
God ‘assimilates’ or ‘declares Himself to be dual’ by saying: laysa 
ka-mithli-hi shay, while he ‘purifies’ or ‘declares Himself to be uni- 
que’ by saying: wa-huwa al-samV al-basir. 

What is very important to remember in this connection is that, in 
Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s conception, tanzih and tashbih are each a kind of 
‘delimitation’ ( tahdid ). In both the Qoran and Tradition, he 
observes , 26 we often find God describing Himself with ‘delimita- 
tion’, whether the expression aims at tanzih or tashbih. Even God 
cannot describe himself in words without delimiting Himself. He 
describes Himself for example, as, ‘sitting firm on the throne’, 
‘descending to the lowest heaven’, ‘being in heaven’, ‘being on the 
earth’, ‘being with men wherever they may be’, etc.; none of these 
expressions is free from delimiting and determining God. Even 
when He says of Himself that ‘there is nothing like unto Him’ in the 
sense of tanzih , 11 He is setting a limit to Himself, because that which 
is distinguished from everything determined is, by this very act of 
distinction, itself determined, i.e., as something totally different 
from everything determined. For ‘a complete non-determination is 
a kind of determination’. 


Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 

Thus tanzih is a ‘delimitation’ no less than tashbih. It is evident 
that neither of them alone can ever constitute a perfect description 
of the Absolute. Strictly speaking, however, even the combination 
of the two cannot be perfect in these respects, for delimitations will 
remain delimitations in whatever way one combines them. But by 
combining these two delimitations which of all the delimitations are 
the most fundamental and most comprehensive in regard to the 
Absolute, one approaches the latter to the utmost extent that is 
humanly possible. 

Of these two basic attitudes of man toward the Absolute, Noah, as 
remarked above, represents tanzih. In order to fight idolatry which 
was the prevalent tendency of the age, he exclusively emphasized 
tanzih. Naturally this did nothing but arouse discontent and anger 
among the idol- worshippers, and his appeal fell only upon unheed- 
ing ears. ‘If, however, Noah had combined the two attitudes in 
dealing with his people, they would have listened to his words’ . 28 On 
this point al-Qashani makes the following observation: 

In view of the fact that his people were indulging in an excessive 
tashbih, paying attention only to the diversity of the Names and being 
veiled by the Many from the One, Noah stressed tanzih exclusively. 

If, instead of brandishing to them the stringent unification and 
unmitigated tanzih, he had affirmed also the diversity of the Names 
and invited them to accept the Many that are One and the Multiplic- 
ity that is Unity, clothed the Unity with the form of Multiplicity, and 
combined between the attitude of tashbih and that of tanzih as did 
(our prophet) Muhammad, they would readily have responded to 
him in so far as their outward familiarity with idolatry was agreeable 
to tashbih and in so far as their inner nature was agreeable to tanzih. 

As is clearly suggested by this passage, the idols that were worship- 
ped by the people of Noah were, in Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s conception, prop- 
erly ‘the diversity of the Names’; that is, so many concrete forms 
assumed by the Divine Names. The idols in this sense are sacred in 
themselves. The sin of idolatry committed by the people of Noah 
consisted merely in the fact that they were not aware of the idols 
being concrete forms of the self-manifestation of the One, and that 
they worshipped them as independent divinities. 

The kind of absolute tanzih which was advocated by Noah is called 
by Ibn ‘Arabi furqan, a Qoranic term, to which he ascribes an 
original meaning , 29 and which is to play the role of a key-term in his 

The word furqan, in Ibn ‘ArabFs interpretation derives from the 
root FRQ meaning ‘separating’. One might expect him to use it to 
designate the aspect of ‘dispersion’ ( farq ) referred to a few para- 


Sufism and Taoism 

graphs back, which is also derived from exactly the same root. 
Actually, however, he means by furqan the contrary of ‘dispersion’. 
‘Separating’ here means ‘separating’ in a radical manner the aspect 
of Unity from that of the diversified self-manifestation of the Abso- 
lute. Furqan thus means an absolute and radical tanzih , an intrans- 
igent attitude of tanzih which does not allow even of a touch of 
tashbih . 

Noah exhorted his people to a radical tanzih, but they did not 
listen to him. Thereupon Noah, according to the Qoran, laid a bitter 
complaint before God against these faithless people saying, ‘I have 
called upon my people day and night, but my admonition has done 
nothing but increase their aversion’ (LXXI, 5-6). 

This verse, on the face of it, depicts Noah complaining of the 
stubborn faithlessness of his people and seriously accusing them of 
this sinful attitude. However much he exhorts them to pure mono- 
theism, he says, they only turn a deaf ear to his words. Such is the 
normal understanding of the verse. 

Ibn ‘ Arabi, however, gives it an extremely original interpretation, 
so original, indeed, that it will surely shock or even scandalize 
common sense. The following passage shows how he understands 
this verse. 30 

What Noah means to say is that his people turned a deaf ear to him 
because they knew what would necessarily follow if they were to 
respond favorably to his exhortation. (Superficially Noah’s words 
might look like a bitter accusation) but the true ‘knowers of God’ are 
well aware that Noah here is simply giving high praise to his people in 
a language of accusation. As they (i.e. the true ‘knowers’ of God) 
understand, the people of Noah did not listen to him because his 
exhortation was ultimately an exhortation to furqan. 

More simply stated, this would amount to saying that (1) Noah 
reproaches his people outwardly but (2) in truth he is merely 
praising them. And their attitude is worthy of high praise because 
they know (by instinct) that that to which Noah was calling them 
was no other than a pure and radical tanzih, and that such a tanzih 
was not the right attitude of man toward God. Tanzih in its radical 
form and at its extreme limit would inevitably lead man to the 
Absolute per se, which is an absolutely Unknowable. How could 
man worship something which is absolutely unknown and unknow- 

If Noah had been more practical and really wished to guide his 
people to the right form of religious faith, he should have combined 
tanzih and tashbih . A harmonious combination of tanzih and tashbih 
is called by Ibn ‘Arab! qur’an . 31 The qur’an is the only right attitude 
of man toward God. 

Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 59 

The right (religious) way is qur’an not furqan. And (it is but natural) 
that he who stands in the position of qur’an should never listen to (an 
exhortation to) furqan, even though the latter itself is contained in 
the former. Qur’an implies furqan, but furqan does not imply 
qur’an . 32 

Thus we see that the relation of Noah with his people, as Ibn ‘Arabi 
understands it, has a complex inner structure. On the one hand, 
Noah, as we have just observed, outwardly reproaches his people 
for their faithlessness, but inwardly he praises them because of the 
right attitude they have taken on this crucial question. On the other 
hand, the people, on their part, know, if not consciously, that pure 
monotheism in its true and deep sense is not to reduce God to one of 
his aspects such as is implied by the kind of tanzih advocated by 
Noah, but to worship the One God in all the concrete forms of the 
world as so many manifestations of God. Outwardly, however, they 
give the impression of committing an outrageous mistake by refus- 
ing to accept Noah’s admonition and exhorting each other to stick to 
the traditional form of idol- worship. 

Ibn Arabi terms this relation between Noah and his people 
‘(reciprocal) makr , a word meaning ‘stratagem’, ‘artifice’ or ‘cun- 
ning deceit’. This is based on a Qoranic verse: ‘And they tried to 
deceive by a big artifice’ (LXXI, 22). This situation is explained by 
Affifi in a very lucid way. He writes: 33 

When Noah called upon his people to worship God by way of tanzih 
he did try to deceive them. More generally speaking, whoever calls 
upon others to worship God in such a way, does nothing other than 
trying to exercise makr upon them to deceive them. This is a makr 
because those who are admonished, whatever their religion and 
whatever the object they worship, are in reality worshipping nothing 
other than God. (Even an idolater) is worshipping the Absolute in 
some of its forms of self-manifestation in the external world. 

To call upon the idolaters who are actually worshipping God in this 
form and tell them not to worship the idols but worship God alone, is 
liable to produce a false impression as if the idolaters were worship- 
ping (in the idols) something other than God, while in truth there is 
no ‘other’ thing than God in the whole world. 

The people of Noah, on their part, exercised makr when they, to fight 
against Noah s admonition, called upon one another saying, ‘ Do not 
abandon your gods! This is also a clear case of makr, because if they 
had abandoned the worship of their idols, their worship of God 
would have diminished by that amount. And this because the idols 
are nothing other than so many self-manifestations of God 

Affifi in this connection rightly calls attention to the fact that, for Ibn 
‘Arabi, the Qoranic verse: ‘And thy Lord hath decreed that you 
should worship none other than Him’ (XVII, 23) does not mean, as 


Sufism and Taoism 

it does normally, ‘that you should not worship anything other than 
God’, but rather ‘that whatever you worship, you are thereby not 
(actually) worshipping anything other than God ’. 34 

In explaining why Noah’s call to the worship of God is to be 
understood as a makr, Ibn ‘Arabi uses the terms the ‘beginning’ 
(bidayah) and the ‘end’ (, ghayah ). 35 That is to say, he distinguishes 
between the ‘beginning’ stage and the ‘end’ stage in idol-worship, 
and asserts that these two stages are in this case exactly one and the 
same thing. The ‘beginning’ is the stage at which the people of Noah 
were indulging in idol-worship, and at which they were reproached 
by Noah for faithlessness. They were strongly urged by him to leave 
this stage and go over to the other end, i.e., the ‘end’ stage where 
they would be worshipping God as they should. However, already 
at the ‘beginning’ stage Noah’s people were worshipping none other 
than God albeit only through their idols. So, properly speaking, 
there was no meaning at all in Noah’s exhorting them to leave the 
first stage and go over to the last stage. Indeed, it was even more 
positively an act of makr on the part of Noah that he distinguished 
between the ‘beginning’ and the ‘end’ when there was nothing at all 
to be distinguished. 

As al-Qashani puts it, ‘how can a man be advised to go to God 
when he is already with God?’ To tell the idolaters to stop worship- 
ping God and to worship God alone amounts exactly to the same 
thing as telling those who are actually worshipping God to abandon 
the worship of God and to resort to the worship of God! It is absurd, 
or rather it is worse than absurd, because such an admonition is 
liable to make people blind to the self-revealing aspect of the 

The secret of idol-worship which we have just seen may be 
understood in more theoretical terms as a problem of the compati- 
bility of the One and the Many in regard to the Absolute. There is 
no contradiction in the Absolute being the One and the Many at the 
same time. Al-Qashani offers a good explanation of this fact, com- 
paring it to the essential unity of a human being . 36 

(Since there is nothing existent in the real sense of the word except 
the Absolute itself, a true ‘knower of God’) does not see in the form 
of the Many anything other than God’s face, for he knows that it is He 
that manifests Himself in all these forms. Thus (whatever he may 
worship) he worships only God. 

This may be understood in the following way. The divergent forms of 
the Many within the One are either spiritual, i.e., non-sensible, such 
as angels, or outwardly visible and sensible such as the heavens and 
earth and all the material things that exist between the two. The 
former are comparable to the spiritual faculties in the bodily frame of 
a man, while the latter are comparable to his bodily members. The 

Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 


existence of multiplicity in man in no way prevents him from having a 
unity. (Likewise, the existence of the Many in God does not deprive 
Him of His essential Unity.) 

The conclusion to be reached from all this is that there is nothing 
wrong with idolatry, for whatever one worships one is worshipping 
through it God Himself. Are all idol-worshippers, then, right in 
indulging in idolatry? That is another question. Idolatry, though in 
itself it has nothing blamable, is exposed to grave danger. Idolatry is 
right in so far as the worshipper is aware that the object of his 
worship is a manifested form of God and that, therefore, by wor- 
shipping the idol he is worshipping God. Once, however, he forgets 
this fundamental fact, he is liable to be deceived by his own imagina- 
tion and ascribe real divinity to the idol (a piece of wood or a stone, 
for example) and begin to worship it as a god existing independently 
of, and side by side with, God. If he reaches this point, his attitude is 
a pure tashbih which completely excludes tanzih. 

Thus in Ibn ‘Arabi’s view, there are two basic attitudes toward 
idolatry that are opposed to each other: the one is an attitude 
peculiar to the ‘higher’ (a‘la) people, while the other is characteris- 
tic of the ‘lower’ ( adna ). He says : 37 

The ‘knower’ knows who (really) is the object of his worship; he 
knows also the particular form in which the object of his worship 
appears (to him). He is aware that the ‘dispersion’ and ‘multiplicity’ 

Y . are comparable to the corporeal members in the sensible form (of 
man’s body) and the non-corporeal faculties in the spiritual form (of 
man), so that in every object of worship what is worshipped is no 
f. other than God Himself. 

In contrast to this, the ‘lower’ people are those who imagine a divine 
nature in every object of their worship. If it were not for this (wrong) 

Y, imagination, nobody would worship stones and other similar things. 

This is why (God) said to men of this kind, ‘Name them (i.e., desig- 
nate each object of your worship by its name)!’ (XIII, 23). If they 
*!’ were really to name these objects they would have called them a 

stone, a tree, or a star, (because their idols were in fact stones, trees 
and stars). But if they had been asked, 1 Whom are you worshipping?’, 

“ they would have replied, ‘a god!’ They would never have said, ‘God’ 

or even ‘the god’. 38 

Y; The ‘higher’ people, on the contrary, are not victims of this kind of 

deceitful imagination. (In the presence of each idol) they tell them- 
W selves, ‘This is a concrete form of theophany, and, as such, it deserves 

a veneration’. Thus they do not confine (theophany) to this single 

instance (i.e., they look upon everything as a particular form of 

If we are to judge the attitude of Noah’s people who refused to 
respond to his advice, we must say that it was right in one respect 
and it was wrong in another. They were right in that they upheld 


Sufism and Taoism 

(though unconsciously) the truly divine nature of the outward forms 
of theophany. This they did by resolutely refusing to throw away 
their idols. But they were wrong in that they, deceived by their own 
imagination, regarded each idol as an independently existing god, 
and thus opposed in their minds ‘small goods ’ 39 to God as the ‘great 

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, the ideal combination of tanzih and 
tashbih was achieved only in Islam. The real qur’an came into being 
for the first time in history in the belief of Muhammad and his 
community. On this point Ibn ‘Arabi says : 40 

The principle of qur’an was upheld in its purity only by Muhammad 
and his community ‘which was the best of all communities that had 
ever appeared among mankind’. 41 (Only he and his community real- 
ized the two aspects of) the verse: laysa ka-mithli-hi shay ‘There is 
nothing like unto Him’, for (their position) gathered everything into 
a unity. 42 

As we have seen above, the Qoran relates that Noah called upon his 
people ‘by night and day’. Over against this, Muhammad, Ibn 
‘Arabi says, ‘called upon his people, not “by night and day” but “by 
night in the day and by day in the night” \ 43 

Evidently, ‘day’ symbolizes tashbih and ‘night’ tanzih, because 
the daylight brings out the distinctive features of the individual 
things while the nocturnal darkness conceals these distinctions. The 
position of Muhammad, in this interpretation, would seem to sug- 
gest a complete fusion of tashbih and tanzih. 

Was Noah, then, completely wrong in his attitude? Ibn ‘Arab! 
answers to this question in both the affirmative and the negative. 
Certainly, Noah preached outwardly tanzih alone. Such a pure 
tanzih, if taken on the level of Reason, is, as we have already seen, 
liable to lead ultimately to assimilating the Absolute with pure 
spirits. And tanzih in this sense is a ‘ tanzih by Reason’, and is 
something to be rejected. With Noah himself, however, tanzih was 
not of this nature. Far from being a result of logical thinking, it was a 
tanzih based on a deep prophetic experience 44 Only, the people of 
Noah failed to notice that; for them the tanzih advocated by Noah 
was nothing but a tanzih to be reached by the ordinary process of 

Real tanzih is something quite different from this kind of logical 
tanzih . And according to Ibn ‘ Arabi, the right kind of tanzih was first 
advocated consciously by Islam. It does not consist in recognizing 
the absolute Unknowable alone with a total rejection and denial of 
the phenomenal world of things. The real tanzih is established on 
the basis of the experience by which man becomes conscious of the 
unification of all the Divine Attributes, each Attribute being actual- 


Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 

ized in a concrete thing or event in the world. In more plain terms, 
the real tanzih consists in man’s peeping through the things and 
events of this world into the grand figure of the One God beyond 
them. It is ‘purifying’ {tanzih), no doubt, because it stands on the 
consciousness of the essential ‘oneness’ of God, but it is not a purely 
logical or intellectual ‘purifying’. It is a tanzih which comprises in 
itself tashbih. 

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s view, the tanzih practised by Muhammad was 
inviting men not to the absolute Absolute which bears no relation at 
all to the world, but to Allah the Merciful, that is, the Absolute as 
the ultimate ground of the world, the creative source of all Being. It 
is worthy of notice also that of all the Divine Names the ‘Merciful’ 
(al-Rahman) has been specially chosen in this context. The name 
‘Merciful’ is for Ibn ‘Arabi the most comprehensive Name which 
comprises and unifies all the Divine Names. In this capacity the 
‘Merciful’ is synonymous with Allah. Al-Qashani is quite explicit on 
this point . 45 

It is remarkable that the ‘Merciful’ is a Name which comprises all the 
Divine Names, so that the whole world is comprised therein, there 
being no difference between this Name and the Name Allah. This is 
evidenced by the Qoranic verse: ‘Say: Call upon (Him by the Name) 
Allah or call upon (Him by the Name) Merciful. By whichever Name 
you call upon Him (it will be the same) for all the most beautiful 
Names are His’ (XVII, 110). 

Now each group of people in the world stands under the Lordship of 
one of His Names. And he who stands under the Lordship of a 
particular Name is a servant of that Name. Thus the apostle of God 
(Muhammad) called mankind from this state of divergence of the 
Names unto the unifying plane of the Name Merciful or the Name 

To this Bali Efendi 46 adds the remark that, unlike in the case of 
Noah, there is no relation of reciprocal ‘deceit’ ( makr ) between 
Muhammad and his people, for there is no motive, neither on the 
part of Muhammad nor on the part of the community, for having 
recourse to makr. Muhammad, he goes on to say, certainly invited 
men to the worship of the One God , 47 but he did not thereby call 
men to the Absolute in its aspect of He-ness. In other words, he did 
not unconditionally reject the idols which men had been worship- 
ping; he simply taught men to worship the idols (or, indeed, any 
other thing in the world) in the right way, that is, to worship them as 
so many self-manifestations of God. In the Islamic tanzih there is 
included the right form of tashbih. 

If a man wants to know the Absolute by the power of his Reason 
alone, he is inevitably led to the kind of tanzih which has no place for 


Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 


Sufism and Taoism 

tashbih. If, on the contrary, he exercises his Imagination (i.e., the 
faculty of thinking through concrete imagery) alone, he falls into 
pure tashbih. Both tanzih and tashbih of this sort are by themselves 
imperfect and positively harmful. Only when man sees by the 
experience of ‘unveiling’ the true reality of the matter, can tanzih 
and tashbih assume a form of perfection. 

If Reason functions by itself quite independently of anything else so 
that it acquires knowledge by its own cognitive power, the knowledge 
it obtains of God will surely be of the nature of tanzih, not tashbih. 

But if God furnishes Reason with a (true) knowledge of the Divine 
self-manifestation (pertaining to the tashbih aspect of the Absolute), 
its knowledge of God attains perfection, and it will exercise tanzih 
where it should, and exercise tashbih where it should. Reason in such 
a state will witness the Absolute itself pervading all cognizable forms, 
natural and elemental. And there will remain no form but that 
Reason identifies its essence with the Absolute itself. 

Such is the perfect and complete knowledge (of God) that has been 
brought by the revealed religions. And the faculty of Imagination 
exercises its own judgment (upon every thing) in the light of this 
knowledge (i.e., Imagination collaborates with Reason by modifying 
the tanzih-\ iew of Reason with its own tashbih-view).™ 

The gist of what Ibn ‘Arab! says in this passage may be summarized 
as follows. Under normal conditions, tanzih is the product of 
Reason, and tashbih is the product of Imagination ( wahm ). But 
when the experience of ‘unveiling’ produces in the mind a perfect 
knowledge, Reason and Imagination are brought into complete 
harmony, and tanzih and tashbih become united in the perfect 
knowledge of God. Of Reason and Imagination in such a state, 
however, it is invariably the latter that holds regal sway {sultan). 

Concerning the proper activity of Reason in this process and the 
controlling function exercised by Imagination over Reason in such a 
way that a perfect combination of tanzih and tashbih may be 
obtained, Bali Efendi makes the following illuminating remark : 49 

In just the same place where Reason passes the judgment of tanzih, 
Imagination passes the judgment of tashbih. Imagination does this 
because it witnesses how the Absolute pervades and permeates all 
the forms, whether mental or physical. Imagination in this state 
observes the Absolute in the (completely purified) form peculiar to 
tanzih as established in Reason, and it realizes that to affirm tanzih 
(exclusively, as is done by Reason) is nothing but delimiting the 
Absolute, and that the delimitation of the Absolute is nothing but (a 
kind of) tashbih (i.e., the completely purified Absolute is also a 
particular ‘form’ assumed by the Absolute). But Reason is not aware 
that the tanzih which it is exercising is precisely one of those forms 
which it thinks must be rejected from the Absolute by tanzih. 

These words of Bali Efendi makes the following argument of Ibn 
‘Arab! easy to understand : 50 

It is due to this situation that Imagination 51 has a greater sway in man 
than Reason for man, even when his Reason has reached the utmost 
limit of development, is not free from the control exercised over him 
by Imagination and cannot do without relying upon representation 
regarding what he has grasped by Reason. 

Thus Imagination is the supreme authority ( sultan ) in the most 
perfect form (of Being), namely, man. And this has been confirmed 
by all the revealed religions, which have exercised tanzih and tashbih 
at the same time; they have exercised tashbih by Imagination where 
(Reason has established) tanzih, and exercised tanzih by Reason 
where (Imagination has established) tashbih. Everything has in this 
way, been brought into a close organic whole, wherefanziTz cannot be 
separated from tashbih nor tashbih from tanzih . It is this situation that 
is referred to in the Qoranic verse: ‘There is nothing like unto Him, 
and He is All-hearing All-seeing’, in which God Himself describes 
Him with tanzih and tashbih . . . 

Then there is another verse in which He says, ‘exalted is thy Lord, the 
Lord of majestic power standing far above that with which they 
describe Him (XXXVII, 180). This is said because men tend to 
describe Him with what is given by their Reason. So He ‘purifies’ 
Himself here from their very tanzih, because they are doing nothing 
but delimit Him by their tanzih. All this is due to the fact that Reason 
is by nature deficient in understanding this kind of thing. 


1. Cf. Affifi, Fuy., Com., p. 33. 

2. The epithet subbuhiyyah is a derivative of subbuh or sabbuh which is one of the 
Divine Names meaning roughly ‘One who is glorified’ ‘the All-Glorious’. The verb 
sabbaha {Allah) means to ‘glorify’ God by crying out Subhana Allah! (‘Far above 
stands God beyond all imperfections and impurities!’) 

3. Fus., p. 45/68. 

4. p. 45. 

5. Fu$., Com., p. 47. (The commentary of Bali Efendi is given in the same Cairo 
edition of the Fuyizj which we are using in the present work.) 

6. Cf. Affifi, Fuj., Com., p. 12. 

7. p. 88. 

8. Ibn ‘ Arab! calls the wisdom embodied by Noah ‘ wisdom of a subbuh nature’ , and 
calls the wisdom symbolized by Enoch ‘wisdom of a quddus nature’ ( hikmah qud- 
duslyah), Fus., p. 6 /75. 


Sufism and Taoism 

9. Cf. Qashani, p. 60. 

10. ibid. 

11. Fus., p. 46/68. 

12. pp. 46-47. 

13. Fus., P- 47/68. Ibn'Arabi takes this occasion to point out that the Absolute does 
not allow of definition not only in its absoluteness but also in its self-revealing aspect. 
The impossibility of defining the Absolute perse has already been fully explained in 
Chapter II. But even in its aspect of self-manifestation, the Absolute cannot be 
defined because, as we have just seen, the Absolute in this aspect is everything, 
external or internal, and if we are to define it, the definition must be formulated in 
such a way that it covers all the definitions of all the things in the world. But since the 
things are infinite in number, such a definition is never to be attained. 

14. Fus., p. 47/69. 

15. p. 47. 

16. Fus., P- 47/69. 

17. Fus -, p- 48/69. 

18. ‘Our signs’, that is, ‘Our Attributes’ - al-Qashani. 

19. ‘in so far as their determinations ( ta‘ayyunat , i.e., properties conceived as 
‘determinations’ of the Absolute) are different from your determination’ - al- 
Qashani. This means that, although essentially it is not necessary to distinguish the 
things of the outer world and yourself, there is a certain respect in which ‘all that exist 
outside of yourself’, i.e., the modes of determination peculiar to the things of the 
outer world, are different from the mode of determination which is peculiar to 
‘yourself’, i.e., the inner world. 

20. ‘i.e., what is manifested in yourself by His Attributes. If it were not for this 
manifestation, you would not exist in the world’. - al-Qashani. 

21. Fus -, P- 49/70. 

22. Fus., p. 98-99/93. 

23. p. 99. 

24. that is to say, whenever anybody sees or hears something, it is not the man who 
really sees or hears, but God Himself who sees or hears in the form of that man. 

25. Fus., P- 49/70. 

26. Fus., P- 131/111. 

27. taking ka as expletive. 

28. Fus., P- 50/70. 

Metaphysical Unification and Phenomenal Dispersion 


29. The word furqan, whatever its etymology, denotes in the Qoran the Qoran itself. 
For Ibn ‘Arab!, its meaning is totally different from this. 

30. Fus., p. 51/70. 

31. Qur’an as a technical term of Ibn ‘Arabi’s philosophy is not the name of the 
Sacred Book Qur’an (or Qoran). He derives this word from the root QR’ meaning ‘to 
gather together’ . 

32. Fus ., p. 51/70. 

33. Fus., Com., p. 39. 

34. ibid. Cf. also Fus., p. 55/72. 

35. Fus., p. 54/71-72. 

36. p. 55. The problem of the One and the Many will form the specific topic of 
Chapter VII. 

37. Fus„ p. 55/72. 

38. This implies that for these people each idol is ‘a god’, i.e., an independent 
divinity; they are not aware that in the forms of the idols they are ultimately 
worshipping the One God. 

39. Cf. Qashani, p. 55. 

40. Fus., p. 51/71. 

41. Reference to III, 110 of the Qoran. 

42. i.e., it affirmed ‘separating’ ( farq ) in ‘gathering’ ( jam ‘), and affirmed ‘gathering’ 
in ‘separating’, asserting thereby that the One is Many from a relative point of view 
and that the Many are One in their reality - al-Qashani, p. 51. 

43. Fus., p. 52/71. 

44. Fus., P- 53/71. 

45. p. 54. 

46. ibid., footnote. 

47. Outwardly this might be considered a pure tanzih. 

48. Fus., P- 228/181. 

49. p. 229, footnote. 

50. Fus., P- 229/181-182. 

51. The word Imagination ( wahm ) must be taken in this context in the sense of the 
mental faculty of thinking through concrete imagery based on representation 

Metaphysical Perplexity 


V Metaphysical Perplexity 

As the preceding chapter will have made clear, in Ibn ‘Arabi’s 
conception, the only right attitude of man toward God is a harmoni- 
ous unity composed of tanzih and tashbih , which is realizable solely 
on the basis of the mystical intuition of ‘unveiling’. 

If man follows the direction of Imagination which is not yet 
illumined by the experience of ‘unveiling’, he is sure to fall into the 
wrong type of idolatry in which each individual idol is worshipped as 
a really independent and self-sufficient god. Such a god is nothing 
but a groundless image produced in the mind of man. And the result 
is a crude type of tashbih which can never rise to the level of tanzih. 
If, on the other hand, man tries to approach God by following the 
direction of Reason unaided by Imagination, man will inevitably 
rush toward an exclusive tanzih, and lose sight of the Divine life 
pulsating in all the phenomena of the world including himself. 

The right attitude which combines in itself tanzih and tashbih is, in 
short, to see the One in the Many and the Many in the One, or rather 
to see the Many as One and the One as Many. The realization of this 
kind of coincidentia oppositorum is called by Ibn ‘Arab! ‘perplexity’ 
(hay rah). As such, this is a metaphysical perplexity because here 
man is impeded by the very nature of what he sees in the world from 
definitely deciding as to whether Being is One or Many. 

Ibn ‘Arabi explains the conception of ‘perplexity’ by an original 
interpretation of a Qoranic verse. The verse in question is: ‘And 
they (i.e., the idols) have caused many people to go astray’ (LXXI, 
24). This is interpreted by Ibn ‘Arabi to mean that the existence of 
many idols has put men into perplexity at the strange sight of the 
absolute One being actually diversified into Many through its own 
activity. 1 

The idols in this context represent the multiplicity of forms that 
are observable in the world. And, as al-Qashani remarks, anybody 
who looks at them ‘with the eye of unification (tawhidf , i.e., with 
the preconception of tanzih, is sure to become embarrassed and 
perplexed at the sight of the One being diversified according to the 
relations it bears to its loci of self-manifestation. 

The Qoranic verse just quoted ends with another sentence: ‘and 
(o God) increase Thou not the people of injustice (zalimin) except 
in going astray’, and the whole verse is put in the mouth of Noah. 

This second sentence, too, is interpreted by Ibn ‘Arabi in quite an 
original way. The interpretation is, in fact, more than original, for it 
squeezes out of the verse a conception of zalim which is exactly the 
opposite of what is meant by the Qoran. He begins by saying that 
the word zalim or ‘a man of injustice’ here is equivalent to a phrase 
which occurs repeatedly in the Qoran , zalim li-nafsi-hi, meaning ‘he 
who does injustice or wrong to himself’. Now according to the 
actual usage of the Qoran, ‘he who wrongs himself’ designates a 
stubborn unbeliever who disobeys God’s commands and by sticking 
obstinately to polytheism, drives himself on to perdition. But, as 
interpreted by Ibn ‘Arab! zalim li-nafsi-hi refers to a man who ‘does 
wrong to himself’ by refusing himself all the pleasures of the present 
world and devotes himself to seeking ‘self-annihilation’ ( fana ’) in 
God. 2 

This interpretation is based on another Qoranic verse, namely 
XXXV, 32, which reads: ‘Some of them are doing injustice to 
themselves and some of them are moderate, while some others vie 
one with another in doing good works with the permission of God’ . 
And quite opposite to the usual ranking, Ibn ‘Arabi considers ‘those 
who do injustice to themselves’ the highest and best of all the three 
classes of men. They are, he says, ‘the best of all people, the 
specially chosen of God’. 3 

Al-Qashani quotes, in this connection, a Tradition from al- 
Tirmidhi’s $ahih which reads: ‘These men are all in one and the 
same grade; all of them will be in the Garden’. He says that this 
Tradition refers to the three classes of men mentioned in the verse 
just quoted. These three classes are, as the Tradition explicitly 
states, in the same grade in the sense that they all are destined to go 
to the Garden, but al-Qashani thinks that this does not prevent 
them from forming a hierarchy, the highest being ‘those who do 
injustice to themselves’, the middle the ‘moderate’, and the lowest 
‘those who vie with one another in the performance of good works’ . 
The theoretical explanation he gives of this hierarchy, however, 
does not seem to be convincing at all. It would seem to be better for 
us to take, as Affifi does, ‘the man who does injustice to himself’ as 
meaning a mystic who has had the experience of ‘unveiling’ in 
self-annihilation, and ‘the moderate man’ as meaning ‘a man who 
keeps to the middle course’. Then most naturally, ‘those who vie 
one another’ would mean those who are still in the earlier stage of 
the mystical training. 

However this may be, what is important for Ibn ‘Arabi is the 
conception that the ‘man who does injustice to himself’ occupies the 


Sufism and Taoism 

highest rank precisely by being in metaphysical perplexity. As is 
easy to see, this has a weighty bearing on the interpretation of the 
latter half of the Qoranic verse, in which Noah implores God to 
increase more and more the ‘going astray’ of the ‘people of injustice . 

Noah, according to this understanding, implores God to increase 
even more the metaphysical ‘perplexity’ of the highest class of men, 
while the standard, i.e., common-sense, interpretation of the verse 
sees Noah calling down Divine curses upon the worst class of men, 
the stubborn idol-worshippers. 

In exactly the same spirit, Ibn ‘Arab! finds a very picturesque 
description of this ‘perplexity’ in a Qoranic verse (II, 20) which 
depicts how God trifles with wicked people who are trying in vain to 
beguile and delude Him and those who sincerely believe in Him. A 
dead darkness settles down upon these people. From time to time 
roars frightful thunder, and a flash of lightning ‘almost snatches 
away their sight’. And ‘as often as they are illuminated they walk in 
the light, but when it darkens again they stand still’ . 

This verse in Ibn ‘Arabl’s interpretation, yields a new meaning 
which is totally different from what we ordinarily understand. 
Although he merely quotes the verse without any comment, what 
he wants to convey thereby is evident from the very fact that he 
adduces it in support of his theory of ‘perplexity’ . On behalf of his 
Master, al-Qashani makes it explicit in the following way: 4 

This verse describes the ‘perplexity’ of these people. Thus, when the 
light of the Unity ( ahadiyah ) is manifested they ‘walk’, that is, they 
move ahead with the very movement of God, while when it darkens 
against them as God becomes hidden behind the veil and the Multi- 
plicity appears instead (of Unity) obstructing their view, they just 
stand still in ‘perplexity’. 

This ‘perplexity’ necessarily assumes the form of a circular move- 
ment. ‘The man in “perplexity” draws a circle’, as Ibn ‘ Arab! says. 5 
This is necessarily so, because the ‘walking’ of such a man reflects 
the very circle of the Divine self- manifestation. The Absolute itself 
draws a circle in the sense that it starts from the primordial state of 
Unity, ‘descends’ to the plane of concrete beings and diversifies 
itself in myriads of things and events, and finally ‘ascends’ back into 
the original non-differentiation. The man in ‘perplexity’ draws the 
same circle, for he ‘walks with God, from God, to God, his onward 
movement being identical with the movement of God Himself’. 6 

This circular movement, Ibn ‘ Arab! observes, turns round a pivot 
(qu(b) or center ( markaz ), which is God. And since the man is 
merely going round and round the center, his distance from God 
remains exactly the same whether he happens to be in the state of 
Unity or in that of Multiplicity. Whether, in other words, he is 

Metaphysical Perplexity 


looking at the Absolute in its primordial Unity or as it is diversified 
in an infinite number of concrete things, he stands at the same 
distance from the Absolute per se. 

On the contrary, a man who, his vision being veiled, is unable to 
see the truth, is a ‘man who walks along a straight road’. He 
imagines God to be far away from him, and looks for God afar off. 
He is deceived by his own imagination and strives in vain to reach 
his imagined God. In the case of such a man, there is a definite 
distinction between the ‘from’ {min, i.e., the starting-point) and the 
‘to’ ( ila , i.e., the ultimate goal), and there is naturally an infinite 
distance between the two points. The starting-point is himself 
imagined to be far away from himself, and the distance between is 
an imaginary distance which he thinks separates him from God. 
Such a man, in spite of his desire to approach Him, goes even farther 
from God as he walks along the straight road stretching infinitely 

The thought itself, thus formulated and expressed with the image 
of a man walking in a circle and another going ahead along a straight 
line, is indeed of remarkable profundity. As an interpretation of the 
above-cited Qoranic verse, however, it certainly does not do justice 
to the meaning given directly by the actual context. The extraordi- 
nary freedom in the interpretation of the Qoran comes out even 
more conspicuously when Ibn ‘Arab! applies his exegesis to other 
verses which he quotes as a conclusive evidence for his thesis. 7 The 
first is LXXI, 25, which immediately follows the one relating to the 
‘people who do injustice to themselves’. It reads: ‘Because of their 
mistakes ( khafi’at ) they (i.e., the people of injustice), were 
drowned, and then put into fire. And they found nobody to help 
them in place of God’. 

The word khafi’at meaning ‘mistakes’ or ‘sins’ comes from the 
root KH-T which means ‘to err’ ‘to commit a mistake’. It is a 
commonly used word with a definite meaning. Ibn ‘ Arabi, however, 
completely disregards this etymology, and derives it from the root 
KH-TT meaning ‘to draw lines’ ‘to mark out’. The phrase min 
khan.’ ati-him ‘from their mistakes’ is thus made to mean something 
like: ‘because of that which has been marked out for them as their 
personal possessions’. And this, for Ibn ‘Arab!, means nothing 
other than ‘their own individual determinations {ta ( ayyundt)' , that 
is, ‘the ego of each person’. 

‘Because of their egos’ , i.e., since they had their own egos already 
established, they had to be ‘drowned’ once in the ocean before they 
could be raised into the spiritual state of ‘self-annihilation’ ( fana ’). 

This ocean in which they were drowned, he says, symbolizes 
‘knowledge of God’, and that is no other than the ‘perplexity’. And 
al-Qashani: 8 


Sufism and Taoism 

(This ‘ocean' -‘perplexity’) is the Unity pervading all and manifesting 
itself in multiple forms. It is ‘perplexing’ because of the Unity appear- 
ing in a determined form in every single thing and yet remaining 
non-determined in the whole. (It is ‘perplexing’) because of its 
(simultaneous) non-limitation and limitation. 

As regards the sentence in the verse: ‘then (they) were put into fire’ , 
Ibn ‘Arabi remarks simply that this holocaust occurred in the very 
water, that is, while they were in the ocean. The meaning is again 
explicated by al-Qashani: 9 

This ‘fire’ is the fire of love (‘ ishq ) for the light of the splendor of His 
Face, which consumes all the determined forms and individual 
essences in thd very midst of the ocean of ‘knowledge of God’ and 
true Life. And this true Life is of such a nature that everything comes 
to life with it and yet is destroyed by it at the same time. There can be 
no perplexity greater than the ‘perplexity’ caused by the sight of 
‘drowning’ and ‘burning’ with Life and Knowledge, that is, simul- 
taneous self-annihilation and self-subsistence. 

Thus ‘they found nobody to help them in place of God’, because 
when God manifested Himself to these sages in His Essence, they 
were all burned down, and there remained for them nothing else 
than God who was the sole ‘helper’ for them, i.e., the sole vivifier of 
them. God alone was there to ‘help’ them, and ‘they were destroyed 
(i.e., annihilated) in Him for ever’. Their annihilation in God was 
the very vivification of them in Him. And this is the meaning of 
‘self-subsistence’ ( baqa ), of which fana\ ‘self-annihilation’, is but 
the reverse side. 

If God, instead of destroying them in the ocean, had rescued them 
from drowning and brought them back to the shore of Nature (i.e., 
brought them back to the world of limitations and determinations) 
they would not have attained to such a high grade (i.e., they would 
have lived in the natural world of ‘reality’ and would have remained 
veiled from God by their very individualities). 

Ibn ‘Arab! adds that all this is true from a certain point of view, 10 
‘although, to be more strict (there is no ‘drowning’, no ‘burning’, 
and no ‘helping’ because) everything belongs (from beginning to 
end) to God, and is with God; or rather, everything is God. 

In a Qoranic verse following the one which has just been discussed, 
Noah goes on to say to God: ‘Verily, if Thou shouldst leave them as 
they are, they would surely lead Thy slaves astray and would beget 
none but sinful disbelievers’. 

The words: ‘they would surely lead Thy slaves astray’ mean, 
according to Ibn ‘Arabi, 11 ‘they would put Thy slaves into perplexity 
and lead them out of the state of being slaves and bring them to their 

Metaphysical Perplexity 73 

inner reality which is now hidden from their eyes, namely, the state 
of being the Lord. (If this happens,) then those who think them- 
selves to be slaves will regard themselves as Lords’ . The ‘perplexity’ 
here spoken of is considered by al-Qashani not the true metaphysi- 
cal perplexity but a ‘Satanic perplexity’ (hay rah shay(aniyah). But 
this is evidently an overstatement. Ibn ‘Arabi is still speaking of the 
same kind of metaphysical ‘perplexity’ as before. The point he 
makes here is that, if one permits those who know the Mystery of 
Being to lead and teach the people, the latter will in the end realize 
the paradoxical fact that they are not only slaves, as they have 
thought themselves to be, but at the same time Lords. 

The interpretation which Ibn ‘Arab! puts on the ending part of 
the verse: ‘and would beget none but sinful disbelievers’, is even 
more shocking to common sense than the preceding one. We must 
remember, however, that this interpretation is something quite 
natural and obvious to Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s mind. 

The Arabic word which I have translated as ‘sinful’ is fajir , a 
well-established Qoranic term which is derived from the root FJR 
meaning ‘to commit unlawful, i.e., sinful, acts’ . Ibn ‘Arabi derives it 
from another FJR meaning ‘to open and give an outlet for water’. 
And in this paticular context it is taken in the sense of ‘making 
manifest’ ( izh 'ar ). Thus the word fajir, instead of meaning ‘a man 
who commits sinful acts’, means ‘a man who manifests or unveils 
what is veiled’ . In a terminology which is more typical of Ibn ‘Arabi, 
a fajir is a man who manifests the Absolute in the sense that he is a 
locus of the Absolute’s self-manifestation. 

As for the second term translated here as ‘disbeliever’ , the Arabic 
is kaffar, an emphatic form of kafir meaning ‘one who is ungrateful 
to, i.e., disbelieves in, God’. But, as we have observed before, Ibn 
‘Arabi takes this word in its etymological sense; namely, that of 
‘covering up’. So kaffar in this context is not an ‘ingrate’ or ‘disbe- 
liever’, but a man who ‘covers up’ or hides the Absolute behind the 
veil of his own concrete, determined form. 

Moreover, it is important to remember, the fajir and kafir are not 
two different persons but one and the same person. So that the 
meaning of this part of the verse amounts to: ‘these people would do 
nothing but unveil what is veiled and veil what is manifest at the 
same time’. As a result, those who see this extraordinary view 
naturally fall into ‘perplexity’. 

But precisely the act of falling into this kind of ‘perplexity’ is the 
very first step to attaining ultimately the real ‘knowledge’. And the 
‘perplexity’ here in question has a metaphysical basis. We shall 
consider in what follows this point in more theoretical terms, 
remaining faithful to Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s own description. 

* * * 

74 Sufism and Taoism 

What we must emphasize before everything else is that, in Ibn 
‘Arabi’s world-view, the whole world is the locus of theophany or 
the self-manifestation of the Absolute, and that, consequently, all 
the things and events of the world are self-determinations of the 
Absolute. Therefore, the world of Being cannot be grasped in its 
true form except as a synthesis of contraditions. Only by a simul- 
taneous affirmation of contradictories can we understand the real 
nature of the world. And the ‘perplexity’ is nothing other than the 
impression produced on our minds by the observation of the simul- 
taneous existence of contradictories. 

Ibn ‘ArabI describes in detail some of the basic forms of the 
ontological contradiction. And the explanation he gives of the 
coincidentia oppositorum is of great value and importance in that it 
clarifies several cardinal points of his world-view. Here we shall 
consider two most fundamental forms of contradiction. 

The first 12 is the contradictory nature of the things of the world as 
manifested in the relation between the ‘inward’ (bafin) and the 
‘outward’ ( zahir ). When one wants to define ‘man’, for example, 
one must combine the ‘inward’ and the ‘outward’ of man in his 
definition. The commonly accepted definition - ‘man is a rational 
animal - is the result of the combination, for ‘animal’ represents the 
‘outward’ of man, while ‘rational’ represents his ‘inward’, the 
former being body and the latter the spirit governing the body. Take 
away from a man his spirit, and he will no longer be a ‘man’ ; he will 
merely be a figure resembling a man, something like a stone or a 
piece of wood. Such a figure does not deserve the name ‘ man’ except 
in a metaphorical sense. 

Just as man is man only in so far as there is spirit within the body, 
so also the ‘world’ is ‘world’ only in so far as there is the Reality or 
Absolute within the exterior form of the world. 

It is utterly impossible that the various forms of the world (i.e., the 
things in the empirical world) should subsist apart from the Absolute. 
Thus the basic attribute of divinity ( uluhiyah ) must necessarily per- 
tain to the world in the real sense of the word, not metaphorically, 
just as it (i.e., the complex of spirit, the ‘inward’, and body, the 
‘outward’) constitutes the definition of man, so long as we understand 
by ‘man’ a real, living man. 

Furthermore, not only is the ‘inward’ of the world the Reality itself 
but its ‘outward’ also is the Reality, because the ‘outward’ of the 
world is, as we have seen, essentially the forms of theophany. In this 
sense, both the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ of the world must be defined 
in terms of divinity. 

Having established this point, Ibn ‘Arab! goes on to describe the 
strange nature of the praising ( thana ’) of the ‘inward’ by the ‘out- 

Metaphysical Perplexity 7 5 

ward’ . ‘Just as’ , he says, ‘the outward form of man constantly praises 
with its own tongue the spirit within, so the various forms of the 
world praise, by a special disposal of God, the inward spirit of the 
world’. How does the bodily form of man ‘praise with its own 
tongue’ the spirit within? This is explained by al-Qashani in the 
following way: 13 

The bodily form of man praises the spirit, i.e., the soul, by means of its 
movements and by manifestation of its peculiar properties and per- 
fections. (The reason why this is ‘praise’ is as follows.) The bodily 
members of man are in themselves but (lifeless) objects which, were 
it not for the spirit, would neither move nor perceive anything; 
besides, the bodily members as such have no virtue at all such as 
generosity, liberal giving, magnanimity, the sense of shame, courage, 
truthfulness, honesty, etc. And since ‘to praise’ means nothing other 
than mentioning the good points (of somebody or something), the 
bodily members (praise the spirit) by expressing (through actions) 
the virtues of the spirit. 

Exactly in the same way, the various forms of the world ‘praise’ the 
inner spirit of the universe (i.e., the Reality residing within the 
universe) through their own properties, perfections, indeed, through 
everything that comes out of them. Thus the world is praising its own 
‘inward’ by its ‘outward’. 

We, however, usually do not notice this fact, because we do not have 
a comprehensive knowledge of all the forms of the world. The 
language of this universal ‘praise’ remains incomprehensible to us 
‘just as a Turk cannot understand the language of a Hindi!’. 14 The 
contradictory nature of this phenomenon lies in the fact that if the 
‘outward’ of the world praises its ‘inward’, properly speaking both 
the ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ are absolutely nothing other than the 
Absolute itself. Hence we reach the conclusion that the one who 
praises and the one who is praised are in this case ultimately the 

The phenomenon just described, of the Absolute praising itself in 
two forms opposed to each other, is merely a concrete case illustrat- 
ing the more profound and more general fact that the Absolute, 
from the point of view of man, cannot be grasped except in the form 
of coincidentia oppositorum. Ibn ‘ArabI quotes in support of his 
view a famous saying of Abu Said al-Kharraz, a great mystic of 
Bagdad of the ninth century: ‘God cannot be known except as a 
synthesis of opposites’. 15 

Al-Kharraz, who was himself one of the many faces of the Absolute 
and one of its many tongues, said that God cannot be known except 
by attributing opposites to Him simultaneously. Thus the Absolute is 
the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward. It is nothing 


Metaphysical Perplexity 


Sufism and Taoism 

other than what comes out outwardly (in concealing itself inwardly), 
whereas in the very moment of coming out outwardly it is what 
conceals itself inwardly. 

There is no one who sees the Absolute except the Absolute itself, and 
yet there is no one to whom the Absolute remains hidden. It is the 
Outward (i.e., self-manifesting) to itself, and yet it is the Inward (i.e., 
self-concealing) to itself. The absolute is the one who is called by the 
name of Abu SaTd al-Kharraz and by other names of other contin- 
gent beings. 

The Inward belies the Outward when the latter says ‘I’, and the 
Outward belies the Inward when the latter says T. And this applies 
to every other pair of opposites. (In every case) the one who says 
something is one, and yet he is the very same one who hears. This is 
based on the phrase said by the prophet (Muhammad): ‘and what 
their own souls tell them’, indicating clearly that the soul is the 
speaker and the hearer of what it says at the same time, the knower of 
what itself has said. In all this (phenomenon), the essence itself is one 
though it takes on different aspects. Nobody can ignore this, because 
everybody is aware of this in himself in so far as he is a form of the 

Al-Qashani reminds us concerning this fundamental thesis of his 
Master that everything, in regard to its ontological source and 
ground, is the Absolute, and that all the things of the world are but 
different forms assumed by the same essence. The fact that the 
phenomenal world is so variegated is simply due to the diversity of 
the Divine Names, i.e., the basic or archetypal forms of the Divine 
self-manifestation . 

Nothing exists except the Absolute. Only it takes on divergent forms 
and different aspects according to whether the Names appear out- 
wardly or lie hidden inwardly as well as in accordance with the 
relative preponderance of the properties of Necessity ( wujuh ) over 
those of Possibility ( imkan ) or conversely: the preponderance of 
spirituality, for instance, in some and the preponderance of material- 
ity in others . 16 

As regards Ibn ‘ArabFs words: ‘The Inward belies the Outward 
when the latter says “I”, etc.’, al-Qashanl gives the following 

Each one of the Divine Names affirms its own meaning, but what it 
affirms is immediately negated by an opposite Name which affirms its 
own. Thus each single part of the world affirms its own I-ness by the 
very act of manifesting its property, but the opposite of that part 
immediately denies what the former has affirmed and brings to 
naught its self-assertion by manifesting in its turn a property which is 
the opposite of the one manifested by the first. 

Each of the two, in this way, declares what it has in its own nature, 
and the other responds (negatively) to it. But (in essence) the one 

which declares and the one which responds are one and the same 
thing. As an illustration of this, Ibn ‘ Arabi refers to a (famous) saying 
of the prophet (Muhammad) describing how God pardons the sins 
committed by the people of this community, namely , ‘both what their 
bodily members have done and what their souls have told them (to 
do) even if they do not actually do it.’ This is right because it often 
happens that the soul tells a man to do something (evil) and he 
intends to do it, but is detained from it by another motive. In such a 
case, the man himself is the hearer of what his own soul tells him, and 
he becomes conscious of the conflicting properties at work in himself 
when he hesitates to do the act. 

The man at such a moment is the speaker and the hearer at the same 
time, the commander and the forbidder at the same time. Morover, 
he is the knower of all this. And (he manifests and gathers in himself 
all these contradictory properties), notwithstanding his inner essence 
being one and the same, by dint of the diversity of his faculties and 
governing principles of his actions such as reason, imagination, repul- 
sion, desire etc. Such a man is an image of the Absolute (which is 
essentially one) in its divergent aspects and the properties coming 
from the Names. 

Close to the relation between the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ is the 
contradictory relation between the One and the Many. The two 
kinds of contradictory relations are, at bottom, one and the same 
thing. For the dictum that the Absolute (or the world) is One and 
yet Many, Many and yet One, arises precisely from the fact that the 
infinitely various and divergent things of the world are but so many 
phenomenal forms of one unique Being which is the Absolute. The 
(apparent) difference is due to our taking a slightly different view- 
point in each case. 

Regarding the second relation which we will now consider, Ibn 
‘Arab! offers two explanations, one mathematical and the other 
ontological. We begin with the ‘mathematical’ aspect of the 

The structure of the metaphysical fact that the One appears in the 
multiplicity of things, and the things that are many are ultimately 
reducible to the One or the Absolute, is identical with the structure 
of the reciprocal relation between the mathematical ‘one’, which is 
the very source of all numbers, and the numbers. 

The numbers are produced in a serial form by the (repetition of) 
‘one’. Thus the ‘one’ brings into existence the numbers, while the 
numbers divide the ‘one’, (the only essential difference between 
them being that) a ‘number’ subsists as a number by virtue of some- 
thing which is counted . 17 

Ontologically, as we have seen, the diversification of the unique 
Essence by concrete delimitations and various degrees is the cause 


Sufism and Taoism 

of things and events being observable related to one another in an 
infinitely complicated manner. The basic structure of this 
phenomenon, however, is quite simple. It is, Ibn ‘Arab! says, the 
same as the proceeding of the infinite series of numbers out of ‘one’ . 
In his view, the mathematical ‘one’ is the ultimate source of all 
numbers, and the numbers are nothing but various forms in which 
‘one’ manifests itself. 

‘One’ itself is not a number; it is the source or ground of all 
numbers. Every number is a phenomenal form of ‘one’ brought into 
being by the repetition of the latter (just as all the things in the world 
are products of the one Essence ‘repeating itself’, mutakarrir, in 
various forms of self-determination). 18 The important point is that a 
number thus constituted by repetition of ‘one’, is not a mere con- 
glomeration of the units, but an independent reality (haqiqah). For 
example, the number ‘two’ is explained by al-Qashani in the follow- 
ing way: 19 

When ‘one’ manifests itself ( tajalla ) 20 in a different form it is called 
‘two’. But ‘two’ is nothing other than ‘one’ and ‘one’ put together, 
while ‘one’ itself is not a number. It is to be remarked that the 
structure of this putting together (of two ‘one’s) is one, and the 
product of this putting together, which is called ‘two’, is also one 
number. So that the essential form here is one, the matter is one, and 
the two ‘one’s put together is also one, i.e., ‘one’ manifesting itself in 
a form of the Many. Thus ‘one’ produces the number (‘two’) by 
manifesting itself in two different forms. The same is true of ‘three’, 
for example, which is ‘one’ and ‘one’ and ‘one’, and the nature and 
structure of its one-ness is exactly the same as in the case of ‘two’. 

Thus, all the numbers are each a particular form in which ‘one’ 
manifests itself according to its peculiar determination and the rank 
it occupies in the numerical series. 

It is very important to note that the numbers brought into being in 
this way are all intelligibles ( haqaiq ma‘qulah, lit. ‘realities grasped 
by Reason’), and have no existence in the external world; they exist 
only in our mind. They exist in the external world merely in so far as 
they are recognizable in the objects that are countable. This must be 
what is meant by Ibn ‘Arab! when he says (in the above-quote 
passage) that a ‘number’ is actualized only by something which is 
counted. And this situation corresponds exactly to the ontological 
structure of the world of Being. 

‘Something which is counted’ ( ma‘dud ), in al-Qashani’s interpre- 
tation, refers to the One Reality which manifests itself and 
diversifies itself in the Many. But this is clearly a misinterpretation. 
The ma‘dud in this context must denote a concrete object which 
exists in the external world and which manifests the transcendental 
‘one’ in a concrete form. In terms of the correspondence between 

Metaphysical Perplexity 79 

the mathematical and the ontological order of being, ‘one’ corres- 
ponds to the One Reality, i.e., the Absolute, and the numbers that 
are intelligibles correspond to permanent archetypes, and finally 
the ‘countable things’ correspond to the things of the empirical 
world. Bali Efendi brings out this system of correspondences with 
an admirable lucidity: 21 

You must notice that ‘one’ corresponds symbolically to the one inner 
essence (‘ ayn ) which is the reality itself of the Absolute, while the 
numbers correspond to the multiplicity of the Names arising from the 
self-manifestation of that reality (i.e., of the Absolute) in various 
forms in accordance with the requirement of its own aspects and 
relations. (The multiplicity of the Names here spoken of) is the 
multiplicity of the permanent archetypes in the Knowledge (i.e., 
within the Divine Consciousness). Finally, the ‘things counted’ cor- 
respond to the concrete things of this world, that is, creaturely forms 
of theophany, without which neither the properties of the Names nor 
the states of the permanent archetypes can become manifest (in the 
external world in a concrete way). 

Only when we understand the word ‘things counted’ in this sense, 
are we in a position to see correctly what is meant by the following 
words of Ibn ‘Arabi: 22 

The ‘thing counted’ partakes of both non-existence and existence, for 
one and the same thing can be non-existent on the level of the senses 
while being existent on the level of the intellect . 23 So there must be 
both the ‘number’ and the ‘thing counted’. 

But there must be, in addition, also ‘one’ which causes all this and is 
caused by it . 24 (And the relation between ‘one’ and the numbers is to 
be conceived as follows.) Every degree in the numerical series (i.e., 
every number) is in itself one reality. (Thus each number is a self- 
subsistent unity and) not a mere conglomeration, and yet, on the 
other hand, there certainly is a respect in which it must be regarded as 
‘one’s put together. Thus ‘two’ is one reality (though it is a ‘gathering’ 
of ‘one’ and ‘one’), ‘three’ is also one reality (though it is a ‘gathering’ 
of ‘one’ and ‘one’ and ‘one’), and so on, however far we go up the 
numerical series. Since each number is in this way one (i.e., an 
independent reality), the essence of each number cannot be the same 
as the essences of other numbers. And yet, the fact of ‘gathering’ (of 
‘one’s) is common to all of them (i.e., as a genus, as it were, which 
comprises all the species). Thus we admit the (existence of) various 
degrees (i.e., different numbers, each being unique as an indepen- 
dent number) in terms of the very essence of each one of them, 
recognizing at the same time that they are all one . 25 Thus we inevi- 
tably affirm the very thing which we think is to be negated in itself . 26 
He who has understood what I have established regarding the nature 
of the numbers, namely, that the negation of them is at the same time 
the affirmation of them, must have thereby understood how the 
Absolute in tanzih is at the same time the creatures in tashbih. 

80 Sufism and Taoism 

although there is a distinction between the Creator and the creatures. 
The truth of the matter is that we see here the Creator who is the 
creatures and the creatures who are the Creator. Moreover, all this 
arises from one unique Essence; nay, there is nothing but one unique 
Essence, and it is at the same time many essences. 

In the eye of a man who has understood by experience the ontologi- 
cal depth of this paradox the world appears in an extraordinary form 
which an ordinary mind can never believe to be true. Such an 
experience consists in penetrating into the ‘real situation’ ( amr ) 
beyond the veils of normal perception and thought. In illustration, 
Ibn ‘Arab! gives two concrete examples from the Qoran. 27 The first 
is the event of Abraham going to sacrifice his own son Isaac, and the 
second is the marriage of Adam with Eve. 

(Isaac said to his father Abraham): ‘My father, do what you have 
been commanded to do!’ (XXXVII, 102). The child (Isaac) is essen- 
tially the same as his father. So the father saw (when he saw himself in 
his vision sacrificing his son) nothing other than himself sacrificing 
himself. ‘And We ransomed him (i.e., Isaac) with a big sacrifice’ 
(XXXVII, 107). At that moment, the very thing which (earlier) had 
appeared in the form of a human being (i.e., Isaac) appeared in the 
form of a ram. And the very thing which was ‘father’ appeared in the 
form of ‘son’, or more exactly in the capacity of ‘son’. 

(As for Adam and Eve, it is said in the Qoran): ‘And (your Lord) 
created from it (i.e., the first soul which is Adam) its mate’ (IV, 1). 
This shows that Adam married no other than himself. Thus from him 
issued both his wife and his child. The reality is one but assumes many 

Of this passage, al-Qashani gives an important philosophical expla- 
nation. 28 It is to be remarked in particular that, regarding the 
self-determination of the Absolute, he distinguishes between the 
‘universal self-determination’ ( al-ta‘ayyun al-kulliy ), i.e., self- 
determination on the level of species, and the particular or 
‘individual self-determination’ ( al-ta‘ayyun al-juz’iy). These two 
self-determinations correspond to the ontological plane of the 
archetypes and that of the concrete things. 

‘The reality is one but assumes many forms’ means that what is in 
reality the one unique Essence multiplies itself into many essences 
through the multiplicity of self-determinations. 

These self-determinations are of two kinds: one is ‘universal’ by 
which the Reality in the state of Unity becomes ‘man’, for example, 
and the other is ‘individual’ by which ‘man’ becomes Abraham. Thus, 
in this case, (the one unique Essence) becomes ‘man’ through the 
universal self-determination: and then, through an individual self- 
determination, it becomes Abraham, and through another (indi- 
vidual self-determination) becomes Ishmael. 29 

Metaphysical Perplexity 81 

In the light of this, (Abraham, not as an individual named Abraham, 
but on the level of) ‘man’ before individuation, did not sacrifice 
anything other than himself by executing the ‘big sacrifice’ (i.e., by 
sacrificing the ram in place of his son). For (the ram he sacrificed) was 
hjmself in reality (i.e., if we consider it on the level of the Absolute 
before any self-determination). (It appeared in the form of the ram 
because) the Absolute determined itself by a different universal 
self-determination 30 (into ‘ram’) and then by an individual self- 
determination (into the particular ram which Abraham sacrificed.) 
Thus the same one Reality which had appeared in the form of a man 
appeared in the form of a ram by going through two different self- 
determinations, once on the level of species, then on the level of 

Since ‘ man’ remains preserved both in father and child on the level of 
the specific unity, (Ibn ‘Arabi) avoids affirming the difference of 
essence in father and child and affirms only the difference of ‘capa- 
city’ ( hukm ) saying ‘or more exactly, in the capacity of son’. This he 
does because there is no difference at all between the two in essence, 
that is, in so far as they are ‘man’; the difference arises only in regard 
to their ‘being father’ and ‘being son’ respectively. 

The same is true of Adam and Eve. Both of them and their children 
are one with respect to their ‘being man’. 

Thus the Absolute is one in itself, but it is multiple because of its 
various self-determinations, specific and individual. These self- 
determinations do not contradict the real Unity. In conclusion we 
say: (The Absolute) is One in the form of Many. 

It is remarkable that here al-Qashani presents the contradictory 
relation between the One and the Many in terms of the Aristotelian 
conception of genus-species-individual. There is no denying that 
the world-view of Ibn ‘Arab! has in fact a conspicuously philosophi- 
cal aspect which admits of this kind of interpretation. However, the 
problem of the One and the Many is for Ibn ‘Arab! primarily a 
matter of experience. No philosophical explanation can do justice 
to his thought unless it is backed by a personal experience of the 
Unity of Being ( wahdah al-wujud). The proposition: ‘Adam mar- 
ried himself’, for example, will never cease to be perplexing and 
perturbing to our Reason until it is transformed into a matter of 

Philosophical interpretation is after all an afterthought applied to 
the naked content of mystical intuition. The naked content itself 
cannot be conveyed by philosophical language. Nor is there any 
linguistic means by which to convey immediately the content of 
mystical intuition. If, in spite of this basic fact, one forces oneself to 
express and describe it, one has to have recourse to a metaphorical 
or analogical language. And in fact, Ibn ‘Arabi introduces for this 
purpose a number of comparisons. Here I give two comparisons 
which particularly illumine the relation of the One and the Many. 

82 Sufism and Taoism 

The first is the organic unity of the body and the diversity of the 
bodily members. 31 

These forms (i.e., the infinite forms of the phenomenal world) are 
comparable to the bodily members of Zayd. A man, Zayd, is admit- 
tedly one personal reality, but his hand is neither his foot nor his head 
nor his eye nor his eyebrow. So he is Many which are One. He is 
Many in the forms and One in his person. 

In the same way, ‘man 1 is essentially One no doubt, and yet it is also 
clear that ‘Umar is not the same as Zayd, nor Khalid, nor Ja‘far. In 
spite of the essential one-ness of ‘man’, the individual exemplars of it 
are infinitely many. Thus man is One in essence, while he is Many 
both in regard to the forms (i.e., the bodily members of a particular 
man) and in regard to the individual exemplars. 

The second is a comparison of the luxuriant growth of grass after a 
rainfall. It is based on the Qoran, XXII, 5, which reads: ‘Thou seest 
the earth devoid of life. But when We send down upon it water, it 
thrills, swells up, and puts forth all magnificent pairs of vegetation’. 

He says: 32 

Water 13 , is the source of life and movement for the earth, as is indicated 
by the expression: ‘it thrills’. ‘It swells up’ refers to the fact that the 
earth becomes pregnant through the activity of water. And ‘it puts 
forth all magnificent pairs of vegetation’ , that is, the earth gives birth 
only to things that resemble it, namely, ‘natural’ things like the 
earth . 34 And the earth obtains in this way the property of ‘double- 
ness’ by what is born out of it . 35 

Likewise, the Absolute in its Being obtains the property of multiplic- 
ity and a variety of particular names by the world which appears from 
it. The world, because of its ontological nature, requires that the 
Divine Names be actualized. And as a result, the Divine Names 
become duplicated by the world (which has arisen in this way), and 
the unity of the Many (i.e., the essential unity of the Divine Names) 
comes to stand opposed to the world . 36 Thus (in the comparison of 
the earth and vegetation, the earth) is a unique substance which is 
one essence like (the Aristotelian) ‘matter’ (hayula). And this unique 
substance which is one in essence is many in its forms which appear in 
it and which it contains within itself. 

The same is true of the Absolute with all the forms of its self- 
manifestation that appear from it. So the Absolute plays the role of 
the locus in which the forms of the world are manifested, but even 
then it maintains intact the intelligible unity. See how wonderful is 
this Divine teaching, the secret of which God discloses to some only 
of His servants as He likes. 

The general ontological thesis that the Many of the phenomenal 
world are all particular forms of the absolute One in its self- 
manifestation is of extreme importance in Ibn ‘Arabi’s world-view 
not only because of the central and basic position it occupies in his 

Metaphysical Perplexity 83 

thought but also because of the far-reaching influence it exercises 
on a number of problems in more particular fields. As an interesting 
example of the application of this idea to a special problem, I shall 
here discuss the view entertained by Ibn ‘Arabi concerning the 
historical religions and beliefs that have arisen among mankind. 

The starting-point is furnished by the factual observation that 
various peoples in the world have always worshipped and are wor- 
shipping various gods. If, however, all the things and events in the 
world are but so many self-manifestations of the Absolute, the 
different gods also must necessarily be considered various special 
forms in which the Absolute manifests itself. 

All gods are ultimately one and the same God, but each nation or 
each community believes in, and worships, Him in a special form. 
Ibn ‘Arab! names it ‘God as created in various religious beliefs’. 
And pushing this argument to its extreme, he holds that each man 
has his own god, and worships his own god, and naturally denies the 
gods of other people. God whom each man thus worships as his god 
is the Lord ( rabb ) of that particular man. 

In truth, everybody worships the same one God through different 
forms. Whatever a man worships, he is worshipping indirectly God 
Himself. This is the true meaning of polytheism or idolatry. And in 
this sense, idol-worship is, as we have seen above, nothing blam- 

In order to bring home this point, Ibn ‘Arab! refers to an article of 
belief which every Muslim is supposed to acknowledge; namely, 
that God on the day of Resurrection will appear in the presence of 
the believers in diverse forms. 37 

You must know for sure, if you are a real believer, that God will 
appear on the day of Resurrection (in various forms successively): 
first in a certain form in which He will be recognized, next in a 
different form in which He will be denied, then He will transform 
Himself into another form in which He will be again recognized. 
Throughout this whole process, He will remain He; in whatever form 
He appears it is He and no one else. Yet, on the other hand, it is also 
certain that this particular form is not the same as that particular 

Thus, the situation may be described as the one unique Essence 
playing the role of a mirror. A man looks into it, and if he sees there 
the particular image of God peculiar to his religion he recognizes it 
and accepts it without question. If, however, he happens to see an 
image of God peculiar to some other religion than his, he denies it. 
This is comparable to the case in which a man sees in a mirror his own 
image, then the image of some one else. In either case, the mirror is 
one substance while the images reflected upon it are many in the eye 
of the man who looks at it. He cannot see in the mirror one unique 
image comprising the whole . 38 

84 Sufism and Taoism 

Thus the truth itself is quite simple: in whatever form God appears 
in the mirror, it is always a particular phenomenal form of God, and 
in this sense every image (i.e., every object worshipped as a god) is 
ultimately no other than God Himself. This simple fact, however, is 
beyond the reach of Reason. Reason is utterly powerless in a matter 
of this nature, and the reasoning which is the activity of Reason is 
unable to grasp the real meaning of this phenomenon. 39 The only 
one who is able to do so is the real‘knower’ (‘arif). Ibn ‘ Arabi calls 
such a true ‘knower’ who, in this particular case, penetrates into the 
mystery of the paradoxical relation between the One and the Many, 
a ‘worshipper of the Instant’ (‘ abid al-waqt), 40 meaning thereby a 
man who worships every self-manifestation of God at every 
moment as a particular form of the One. 

Those who know the truth of the matter show a seemingly negative 
attitude toward the various forms which ordinary people worship as 
gods. (But this attitude of denial is merely a make-believe. In reality 
they do not deny such a form of worship for themselves) for the high 
degree of spiritual knowledge makes them behave according to the 
dictates of the Instant. In this sense they are ‘worshippers of the 
Instant .’ 41 

In the consciousness of such men of high spirituality, each Instant is 
a glorious ‘time’ of theophany. The Absolute manifests itself at 
every moment with this or that of its Attributes. The Absolute, 
viewed from this angle, never ceases to make a new self- 
manifestation, and goes on changing its form from moment to 
moment. 42 And the true ‘knowers’, on their part, go on responding 
with flexibility to this ever changing process of Divine self- 
manifestation. Of course, in so doing they are not worshipping the 
changing forms themselves that come out outwardly on the surface; 
they are worshipping through the ever changing forms the One that 
remains eternally unchanging and unchangeable. 

These men know, further, that not only themselves but even the 
idol- worshippers are also (unconsciously) worshipping God beyond 
the idols. This they know because they discern in the idol- 
worshippers the majestic power of Divine self-manifestation ( sultan 
al-tajalli ) working actively quite independently of the conscious 
minds of the worshippers. 43 

If, in spite of this knowledge, the ‘knowers’ hold outwardly an 
attitude of denial toward idolatry, it is because they want to follow 
the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad. The prophet forbad 
idol-worship because he knew that the understanding of the mass of 
people being shallow and superficial, they would surely begin to 
worship the ‘forms’ without going beyond them. He urged them, 
instead, to worship One God alone whom the people could know 

Metaphysical Perplexity 85 

only in a broad general way but never witness (in any concrete 
form). The attitude of the ‘knowers’ toward idol- worship is pious 
imitation of this attitude of Muhammad. 

Let us go back to the point from which we started. We opened this 
chapter with a discussion of the problem of ‘perplexity’ ( hayrah ). 
We are now in a better position to understand the true nature of the 
‘perplexity’ and to see to what extent the ontological structure of 
Being is really ‘perplexing’ . A brief consideration of the problem at 
this stage will make a suitable conclusion to the present chapter. 

An infinity of things which are clearly different from each other 
and some of which stand in marked opposition to one another are, 
with all the divergencies, one and the same thing. The moment man 
becomes aware of this fact, it cannot but throw his mind into 
bewildering confusion. This ‘perplexity’ is quite a natural state for 
those who have opened their eyes to the metaphysical depth of 

But on reflection it will be realized that the human mind falls into 
this ‘perplexity’ because it has not yet penetrated deeply below the 
level of superficial understanding. In the mind of a sage who has 
experienced the Unity of Being in its real depth there can no longer 
be any place for any ‘perplexity’ . Here follows what Ibn ‘Arab! says 
on this point. 44 

The ‘perplexity’ arises because the mind of man becomes polarized 
(i.e., toward two contradictory directions, one toward the One and 
the other toward the Many). But he who knows (by the experience of 
‘unveiling’) what I have just explained is no longer in ‘perplexity’, no 
matter how many divergent things he may come to know. For (he 
knows that) the divergence is simply due to the nature of the locus, 
and that the locus in each case is the eternal archetype itself of the 
thing. The Absolute goes on assuming different forms in accordance 
with different eternal archetypes, i.e., different loci of self- 
manifestation, and the determinate aspects which man perceives of it 
go on changing correspondingly. In fact, the Absolute accepts every 
one of these aspects that are attributed to it. Nothing, however, is 
attributed to it except that in which it manifests itself (i.e., the 
particular forms of its self-manifestation). And there is nothing at all 
(in the whole world of Being) except this . 45 

On the basis of this observation al-Qashani gives a final judgment 
concerning the metaphysical ‘perplexity’. It is, he says, merely a 
phenomenon observable in the earliest stage of spiritual 
development. 46 

The ‘perplexity’ is a state which occurs only in the beginning when 
there still lingers the activity of Reason and the veil of thinking still 


Sufism and Taoism 

remains. But when the ‘unveiling’ is completed and the immediate 
intuitive cognition becomes purified, the ‘perplexity’ is removed with 
a sudden increase of knowledge coming from the direct witnessing of 
the One manifesting itself in diverse forms of the archetypes in 
accordance with the essential requirement of the Name ‘All- 
knowing’ (‘alim).* 1 


1. Fu$., p. 55/72. 

2. Cf. Affifi, Fu$., Com., p. 40; Fuj., p. 56/72-73. 

3. Reference to Qoran, XXXVIII, 47. 

4. p. 56. 

5. Fuj., p. 56/73. 

6. Qashani, p. 56. 

7. Fuj., p. 57/73. 

8. p. 57. 

9. ibid. 

10. i.e., from the point of view of the Names, in whose plane alone there come into 
existence all these differences in degrees. 

11. Fus-, p. 58/74. 

12. Fuj., p. 48/69. 

13. p. 48. 

14. Qashani, ibid. 

15. Fuj., p. 64/77. 

16. p. 64. 

17. Fus„ p. 64/77. 

18. The words in parentheses belong to al-Qashani, p. 65. 

19. ibid. 

20. It is to be remarked that the multiplication of the mathematical ‘one’ is described 
in terms of ‘self-manifestation’ ( tajalh ) just in the same way as the Absolute is 
described as ‘manifesting itself’ in the Many. 

Metaphysical Perplexity 

21. p. 65, footnote. 

22. Fu$„ p. 65/77-78. 


23. i.e., one and the same thing qua ‘number’ is non-existent on the level of the 
senses, existing only on the level of intellect, but it is, qua ‘a thing counted’, existent 
on the level of the senses. In other words, it is the ‘thing counted’ that makes a 
number exist in a concrete, sensible form. The same applies to the relation between 
an archetype and a thing which actualizes it in a sensible form. 

24. i.e., besides the ‘number’ and the ‘thing counted’, there must necessarily be also 
‘one’ which is the ultimate source of all numbers and things counted. But ‘one’ which 
thus causes and establishes the numbers is also caused and established by the latter in 
concrete forms. 

25. That is to say: we admit the one-ness (i.e., uniqueness) of each number, while 
recognizing at the same time the one-ness (i.e., sameness) of all numbers. 

26. You affirm of every number that which you negate of it when you consider it in 
itself. This may be explained in more concrete terms in the following way. You admit 
the inherence of ‘one’ in every number; ‘one’ is the common element of all the 
numbers and is, in this respect, a sort of genus. But, on the other hand, you know that 
‘one’ is not inherent in every number in its original form but only in a particularized 
form in each case; ‘one’ may be considered a sort of species as distinguished from 
genus. Thus ‘one’ , although it does exist in every number, is no longer the ‘one’ perse 
in its absoluteness. And this precisely corresponds to the ontological situation in 
which the Absolute is manifested in everything, but not as the absolute Absolute. 

27. Fu$., p. 67/78. 

28. p. 67. 

29. the Absolute 


(universal self-determination) 

/ \ . 

, A 

( individual 

V self-determination , 

. / \ 

this ram that ram 

, N 

/ individual \ 
\ self-determination / 

f \ 

Abraham Ishmael 

30. i.e., by a specific self-determination different from the self-determination by 
which the Absolute became ‘man’. 

31. Fu$„ pp. 231-232/183-184. 

32. Fus., p. 253/200. 

33. ‘Water’ for Ibn ‘Arabi is a symbol of cosmic Life. 

34. The idea is that the earth produces only ‘earth-like’ things, i.e., its own ‘dupli- 
cates’ , the symbolic meaning of which is that the things of the world are ultimately of 
the same nature as the Absolute which is their ontological ground. 

88 Sufism and Taoism 

35. i.e., the luxuriant vegetation which grows forth from the earth, being of the same 
nature as the latter, ‘doubles’ so to speak the earth. 

36. This is a difficult passage, and there is a remarkable divergence between the 
Cairo edition and that of Affifi. The Affifi text reads: fa-thabata bi-hi wa-khaliqi-hi 
ahadlyah al-kathrah ‘thus the unity of the Many becomes established by the world 
and its Creator’. The Cairo edition, which I follow here, reads: fa-thunniyat bi-hi 
wa-yukhalifu-hu ahadiyah al-kathrah. 

37. Fuy., p. 232/184. 

38. i.e., what he actually sees in the mirror is always the particular image of a 
particular object which happens to be there in front of the mirror; he can never see a 
universal image comprising all the particular images in unity. 

39. Fuj., p. 233/185. 

40. The word waqt ‘Time’ in this context means, as al-Qashani remarks, the present 
moment, or each successive moment as it is actualized (p. 247). 

41. Fu. j., p. 247/196. 

42. a view comparable with the atomistic metaphysics of Islamic theology. 

43. Fus., p. 247/196. 

44. Fu$., p. 68/78. 

45. All the divergent aspects ( ahk 'am ) that are recognizable in the world of Being are 
so many actualizations of the eternal archetypes. And the eternal archetypes, in their 
turn, are nothing but so many self-manifestations of the Absolute. In this sense 
everything is ultimately the Absolute. And there is no place for ‘perplexity’. 

46. p. 68. 

47. The archetypes are, as we shall see later in more detail, the eternal essential 
forms of the things of the world as they exist in the Divine Consciousness. They are 
born in accordance with the requirement of the Attribute of Omniscience. 

VI The Shadow of the Absolute 

In the preceding chapter the special relation between the Absolute 
and the world has been discussed. We have seen how the Absolute 
and the world are contradictorily identical with one another. The 
two are ultimately the same; but this statement does not mean that 
the relation between them is one of simple identification: it means 
that the Absolute and the world are the same while being at the 
same time diametrically opposed to each other. The creatures are in 
essence nothing other than God, but in their determined forms they 
are far from being the same as God. Rather, they are infinitely 
distant from God. 

Ibn ‘ Arab!, as we have observed, tries to describe this contradic- 
tory situation by various images. ‘Shadow’ (zill) is one of them. 
Using this metaphor he presents his view in a basic proposition: 
‘The world is the shadow of the Absolute’ . The world, as the shadow 
of the Absolute, is the latter’s form, but it is a degree lower than the 

Know that what is generally said to be ‘other than the Absolute’ or 
the so-called ‘world’, is in relation to the Absolute comparable to 
shadow in relation to the person. The world in this sense is the 
‘shadow’ of God . 1 

It is to be remarked concerning the passage just quoted that in Ibn 
‘ ArabFs thought, there is, strictly speaking, nothing ‘other than the 
Absolute’ . This last phrase is merely a popular expression. 2 But the 
popular expression is not entirely groundless, because philosophi- 
cally or theologically the world is a concrete phenomenal form of 
the Divine Names, and the Divine Names are in a certain sense 
opposed to the Divine Essence. In this respect the world is surely 
‘other than the Absolute’. The argument of Ibn ‘Arab! contirlues: 

(To say that the world is the shadow of the Absolute) is the same as 
attributing existence (i.e., concrete, sensible existence) to the world. 
For shadow surely exists sensibly, except that it does so only when 
there is something 3 in which it makes its appearance. If there is 
nothing in which to appear, the shadow would remain merely 


Sufism and Taoism 

intelligible without existing in a sensible form. In such a case, the shadow 
rather remains in potentia in the person to whom it is attributed. 

The structure of this phenomenon is made more explicit by al- 
Qashani in the following remark : 4 

In order that there be shadow there must necessarily be three things: 

(1) a tall object which casts the shadow, (2) the place where it falls, 
and (3) light by which alone shadow becomes distinctively existent. 

The ‘object’ corresponds to the real Being or the Absolute. The 
‘place’ in which shadow appears corresponds to the archetypal 
essences of the possible things. If there were no ‘place’, shadow 
would never be sensible, but would remain something intelligible like 
a tree in a seed. It would remain in the state of potentiality in the 
‘object’ which would cast the shadow. 

The ‘light’ corresponds to the Divine Name the ‘Outward’. 

If the world had not come into contact with the Being of the Abso- 
lute, the ‘shadow’ would have never come to exist. It would have 
remained for ever in the primordial non-existence which is charac- 
teristic of the possible things considered in themselves without any 
relation to their Originator (who brings them into the state of real 
existence). For ‘shadow’, in order to exist, needs the ‘place’ as well as 
an actual contact with the thing that projects it. God, however, 

‘ existed when there was nothing beside Him’ , and in that state He was 
completely self-sufficient having no need of the whole world. 

This interpretation by al-Qashani makes it clear that the ‘shadow’ is 
cast not on what we call the ‘world’ directly, but on the archetypes of 
the things. In other words, the ‘world’ begins to exist on a higher 
level than the one on which our common sense usually thinks it to 
exist. The moment the shadow of the Absolute is cast on the 
archetypes, the world is born, although, strictly speaking, the 
archetypes themselves are not the ‘world’ but rather the locus of 
the appearance of the world’. 

Shadow, however, does not appear except by the activity of light. 
This is the reason why we have the Divine Name ‘Light’ ( nur ). 

The locus of the appearance of this Divine ‘shadow’ called the ‘ world’ 
is the archetypal essences of the possible things. 5 It is on these 
archetypes that the shadow (first) spreads. And the shadow becomes 
perceivable in accordance with the amount actually spread of the 
Being of the One who projects it upon them. The perception of it, 
however, can take place only in virtue of the Name ‘Light’. 6 

It is remarkable that the shadows of things projected on the earth 
are said to take on a dark, blackish color. This has a symbolic 
meaning. It symbolizes in the first place that, in the particular case 
which is our immediate concern, the source of the ‘shadow’ is a 
Mystery, an absolutely Unknown-Unknowable. The blackness of 

The Shadow of the Absolute 


shadow indicates, in the second place, that there is a distance 
between it and its source. Here is what Ibn ‘Arab! says on this 
problem : 7 

The ‘shadow’ spreading over the archetypal essences of the possible 
things, (becomes visible in the primal) manifestation-form of the 
unknown Mystery ( ghayb ). 8 

Do you not see how all shadows appear blackish? This fact indicates 
the inherence of obscurity in the shadows due to an intervening 
distance in the relation between them and the objects which project 
them. Thus, even if the object be white, the shadow it casts takes on a 
blackish color. 

As usual al-Qashani reformulates what is implied by this passage in 
more ontological terms : 9 

The archetypes are dark because of their distance from the light of 
Being. And when the light which is of a totally different nature from 
their own darkness spreads over them, their proper darkness of 
non-Being ( zulmah ‘ adamiyah ) affects the luminosity of Being, and 
the light-nature turns toward darkness. In other.words, the light of 
Being turns in this way toward obscurity, just as the shadow does in 
relation to the thing which casts it. The relation of the relative Being 
to the absolute Being is exactly like that, so that, if it were not for its 
being determined by the archetypal essences of the possible things, 
the absolute Being would shine forth with extreme incandescence 
and no one would be able to perceive it because of the intensity of the 

Thus it comes about that those who are veiled by the darkness of 
determination see the world but do not see the Absolute, for ‘being in 
utter darkness they do not see’ (Qoran, II, 17). But those who have 
come out of the veils of determinations witness the Absolute, for they 
have torn asunder the veil of darkness and veiled themselves with 
light against darkness, i.e., veiled themselves with the Essence 
against the ‘shadow’. Those, however, who are not veiled by either of 
the two against the other can witness the light of the Absolute in the 
midst of the blackness and darkness of the creaturely world. 

In the following passage Ibn ‘Arab! emphasizes the effect of the 
distance that separates the archetypes from the Absolute in produc- 
ing the darkish color of the former . 10 

Do you not see how the mountains, if they happen to be far away 
from the sight of the man who looks at them, appear black, when in 
reality they may be quite different in color from what the sense 
perceives. And the distance is the only cause for this phenomenon. 
The same is true of the blue of the sky. In fact, anything which is not 
luminous produces the same kind of effect on the sense when there is 
a long distance between the object and sight. 

Exactly the same situation is found with regard to the archetypal 


The Shadow of the Absolute 


Sufism and Taoism 

essences of the possible things, for they, too, are not luminous by 
themselves. (They are not luminous) because they are non-existent 
(ma‘dum). True, they do possess an ontological status intermediary 
between sheer non-existence and pure existence but they do not 
possess Being by themselves, because Being is Light. 

Another important effect produced by distance on the sense of sight 
is that it makes every object look far smaller that it really is. For Ibn 
‘Arabi this also has a deep symbolic meaning. 

Even the luminous objects, however, appear small to the sense by 
dint of distance. And this is another effect of distance on sense 
perception. Thus the sense does not perceive (distant luminous 
objects) except as very small things, while in reality they are far 
bigger and of greater quantities than they look. For example, it is a 
scientifically demonstrated fact that the sun is one hundred and sixty 
times bigger than the earth. Actually, however, it appears to the 
sense as small as a shield, for instance. This, again, is the effect 
produced by distance. 

The world is known just to the same degree as shadow is perceived, 
and the Absolute remains unknown to the same degree as the object 
which casts the shadow remains unknown. 

Thus, as long as the ‘shadow’ (which can be perceived and known) is 
the ‘shadow’ (of the Absolute), the Absolute also is known. But as 
long as we do not know the essential form of the object contained 
within the ‘shadow’, the Absolute remains unknown. 

This is why we assert that the Absolute is known to us in one sense, 
but is unknown to us in another. 11 

The Absolute in this comparison is the source of the ‘shadow’. And 
the former is known to us to the very extent that ‘shadow’, i.e., the 
world, is known. This amounts to saying, if we continue to use the 
same metaphor, that the Absolute is known to us only as something 
‘small and black’. And this ‘something small and black’ is what is 
generally understood as our God or our Lord. The real Something 
which projects this ‘shadow’ is never to be known. Ibn ‘Arabi bases 
his argument on a few Qoranic verses which he interprets as he 
always does, in his own way . 12 

‘Hast thou not seen how thy Lord spreads shadow? But if He so 
desired He could make them stand still’ (XXV, 45). The phrase 
‘stand still’ means ‘remain within God in the state of potentiality.’ 
God means to say (in this verse): It is not in the nature of the 
Absolute to manifest itself to the possible things (i.e., the archetypes) 
unless there appears first (upon them) its ‘shadow’. Yet the ‘shadow’ 

(in this state and in itself) is no different from those of the possible 
things which have not yet been (actualized) by the appearance of the 
corresponding concrete things in the (phenomenal) world. 

When the Absolute ‘desires’ to manifest itself in the archetypes 

(and through them in the concrete things), there appears first a dark 
‘shadow’ upon them. The Divine self-manifestation never occurs 
unless preceded by the appearance of the ‘shadow’. But if God so 
wishes at this stage, the ‘shadow’ would be made to ‘stand still’, i.e., 
it would remain forever in that state of potentiality and would not 
proceed further toward the level of concrete things. In such a case, 
the ‘shadow’ would simply be another possible thing just as the 
archetypes themselves which have no corresponding realities in the 
outer world. Ibn ‘Arabi goes on : 13 

‘Then We have made the sun its indicator’ (XXV, 45). The sun 
(which is thus made to be the indicator of the ‘shadow’) is the Divine 
Name ‘Light’ to which reference has already been made. And the 
sense bears witness to it (i.e., to the fact that the indicator of the 
‘shadow’ is no other than the Light) because shadows have no real 
existence where there is no light. 

‘Then We withdraw it toward us with an easy withdrawal’ (XXV, 46). 
God withdraws to Himself the ‘shadow’, because it is His ‘shadow’ 
which He Himself has projected. Thus everything appears from Him 
and goes back to Him, for it is He, no one else. 

Everything you perceive is the Being of the Absolute as it appears 
through the archetypal essences of the possible things. The same 
thing, as the He-ness of the Absolute, is its Being, and, as the 
divergence of forms, is the archetypal essences of the possible things. 

Just as the name ‘shadow’ does not cease to subsist in it with the 
divergence of forms, the name ‘world’ does not cease to subsist in it 
with the divergence of forms. Likewise the name ‘other than the 

In regard to its essential unity in being ‘shadow’ , it is the Absolute, for 
the latter is the Unique, the One. But in regard to the multiplicity of 
forms it is the world. 

Briefly, this means that the ‘shadow’, as it spreads over the 
archetypes, can be observed in two opposed aspects: the aspect of 
fundamental unity and the aspect of diversity. In fact, the ‘shadow’, 
as any physical shadow in this world is one; and in this aspect it turns 
toward its source. Or rather, it is nothing else than the Absolute 
itself, because it is a direct projection of the Divine Unity ( ahad - 
iyah). But in its second aspect, the same ‘shadow’ is already 
diversified, and is faced toward the world of concrete things; or 
rather, it is the world itself. 

Thus considered, the world in the sense in which we ordinarily 
understand it has no reality; it is but a product of imagination . 14 

If the truth is what I have just pointed out to you, the world is an 
illusion having no real existence in itself. And this is the meaning of 
imagination. The world, in other words, looks as if it were something 
independent and subsisting by itself outside the Absolute. 


Sufism and Taoism 

This, however, is not true. Do you not see how in your ordinary 
sensible experience shadow is so closely tied up with the thing which 
projects it that it is absolutely impossible for it to liberate itself from 
this tie? 

This is impossible because it is impossible for anything to be detached 
from itself. 

Since the world is in this way the ‘shadow’ of the Absolute, it is 
connected with the latter with an immediate tie which is never to be 
loosened. Every single part of the world is a particular aspect of the 
Absolute, and is the Absolute in a state of determination. Man, 
being himself a part of the world, and a very special part at that, 
because of his consciousness, is in a position to know intimately, 
within himself, the relation of the ‘shadow’ to the Absolute. The 
extent to which a man becomes conscious of this ontological rela- 
tion determines his degree of ‘knowledge’. There naturally result 
from this several degrees of ‘knowledge’. 

Know your own essence (‘ayn, i.e., your archetypal essence). Know 
who you are (in your concrete existence) and what your He-ness is. 
Know how you are related with the Absolute; know in what respect 
you are the Absolute and in what respect you are the ‘world’ , ‘other’ 
and something ‘different’ from the Absolute. 

This gives rise to a number of degrees among the ‘knowers’. Thus 
some are simply ‘ knowers’ , and some others are ‘ knowers’ in a higher 
degree . 15 

These degrees of the ‘knower’ are described in a more concrete 
form by al-Qashani in his Commentary . 16 The lowest is represented 
by those who witness only the aspect of determination and 
diversification. They see the created world, and nothing beyond. 
The second rank is that of those who witness the Unity of Being 
which is manifested in these forms. They witness the Absolute (but 
forget about the created world). The third rank witness both 
aspects. They witness both the creatures and the Absolute as two 
aspects of one Reality. The fourth in degree are those who witness 
the whole as one Reality diversifying itself according to various 
aspects and relations, ‘one’ in Essence, ‘all’ with the Names. Those 
are the people of God who have the real knowledge of God. In 
terms of ‘self-annihilation’ ( fana ’) and ‘self-subsistence’ ( baqa ’), 
al-Qashani says that those who witness only the Absolute, lpsing 
sight of the creatures, are people who are dominated by ‘self- 
annihilation’ and ‘unification’, while those who witness the Abso- 
lute in the creatures and the creatures in the Absolute are described 
as people who have obtained a perfect vision in the state of ‘self- 
subsistence’ -after-‘self-annihilation’ and the view of ‘dispersion’ - 
after - 4 unification’. 

The Shadow of the Absolute 


Ibn ‘Arab! himself compares these spiritual degrees to a naturally 
colorless light being tinged with various colours as it passes through 
coloured pieces of glass . 17 

The relation of the Absolute to a particular ‘shadow’ , small, large, or 
pure in different degrees, may be compared to the relation of light to 
a piece of glass intervening between it and the eye of a man who looks 
at it. The light in such a case assumes the color of the glass, while in 
itself it is colorless. (The colorless light) appears to the sense of sight 
as colored - an appropriate comparison for the relation of your own 
reality with your Lord. 

If you say that the light has become green because of the green color 
of the glass, you are right. This is evidenced by your sense perception. 
But if you say that the light is not green nor, indeed, of any color at all, 
you are also right. You are, in this case, following what is given by 
your logical reasoning. And your judgment is based on the right 
activity of Reason. 

See how the light passes through a ‘shadow’ which is no other than 
the glass. The glass (is a ‘shadow’ , but it is) a ‘shadow’ which is of the 
nature of light because of its transparency . 18 
In just the same way, when one of us has realized in himself the 
Absolute, the Form of the latter appears in him more than it does in 
others. (He who has realized in himself the Absolute is of two 
different degrees): the first degree is represented by a man whose 
hearing, sight, and all other faculties and bodily members are the 
Absolute itself in accordance with the teaching of the Revelation 
concerning the Absolute . 19 Even in such a case, however, the 
‘shadow’ itself is still there (in the form of his enlightened ‘self’) 
because the personal pronoun in ‘his hearing’ , ‘his sight’ etc. refers to 
the man. He who represents the second (i.e., higher) degree is 
different from this. A man of this second degree is close to the Being 
of the Absolute than all others. 

As we see, Ibn ‘ ArabI does not give any detailed description of those 
of the second degree. He is content with stating that they are closer 
to the Absolute than others. Al-Qashani makes this point more 
explicit and precise . 20 

The first is he who has ‘annihilated himself’ from his own attributes in 
the Attributes of the Absolute so that the Absolute has taken the 
place of his attributes. The second is he (who has ‘annihilated him- 
self’) from his own essence in the Essence of the Absolute so that the 
Absolute has taken the place of his essence. 

The first is the kind of man who is referred to when we say, ‘the 
Absolute is his hearing, his sight, etc.’ . . . Such a man is closer to the 
Absolute than other (ordinary) believers who act with their own 
attributes and who remain with their (natural) veils (i.e., the veils of 
human attributes). His attitude (toward God) is described as the 
‘closeness of supererogatory works’ ( qurb al-nawafil). And yet, his 
‘shadow’ itself, i.e., his relative existence, which is no other than his 


Sufism and Taoism 

ego, still subsists in him. And the self-manifestation of the Absolute 
in such a man occurs and is witnessed in accordance with his own 
attributes, for the personal pronoun in 'his hearing’ etc. refers to the 
particularized existence which is the ‘shadow’. 

Closer still than this closeness is the ‘closeness of the obligatory 
works’ ( qurb al-fara’id) which is represented by the second degree. A 
man of this second category is one who has ‘annihilated himself’ 
totally with his essence and is ‘subsistent’ in the Absolute. This is the 
kind of man by whom the Absolute hears and sees. Thus such a man is 
the hearing of the Absolute itself and the sight of the Absolute. Nay, 
he is the Form of the Absolute. To him refer God’s words: ‘(when 
thou threwest,) thou wert not the one who threw, but God it was who 
really threw’ (VIII, 17). 

Thus it is clear that, although both categories are men who have 
realized themselves in the Absolute, the first is inferior to the 
second in that the ‘shadow’, that is, man’s existence, still remains in 
the first, and in the view of such men the Absolute and the world 
stand opposed to each other. This is the standpoint of the ‘exterior’ 
( zahir ), while the second represents the standpoint of the ‘interior’ 

And this makes it also clear that the world, though it is a ‘perfect 
form’ in which the Absolute manifests itself with all its perfections, 
is necessarily a degree lower than the Absolute. 

Just as woman is a degree lower than man according to the Divine 
words: ‘men have a degree of superiority over them (i.e., women)’ 

(II, 228), that which has been created in the image (of God) is lower 
than He who has brought it out to existence in His image. Its being in 
the image of God (does not prevent it from being lower than its 
Originator). And by that very superiority by which He is disting- 
uished from the creatures He is completely independent of the whole 
world and is the Prime Agent. For the ‘image’ is only a secondary 
agent and does not possess the priority which belongs to the Absolute 
alone. 21 


1. Fus., p. 113/101. 

2. fi al-‘urf al-'amm as al-Qashani says, p. 113. 

3. Ibn ‘Arab! actually uses a personal form, ‘somebody’, instead of 

4. pp. 113-114. 

The Shadow of the Absolute 


5. The expression a‘yan al-mumkinat is explained by Jam! as a'yan al-mumkinat 
al-thabitah fi al-hadrah al-‘ilmiyah ( Sharh al-Fusiis). 

6. Fus., p. 114/102. 

7. Fus., p. 114/102. 

8. The primal manifestation-form of the Mystery’ is nothing other than the 
metaphysical level of Divine Consciousness which is in fact the first visible form 
assumed by the Mystery (Jami). 

9. p. 114. 

10. Fus., p. 114/102. 

11. Fuy., p. 115/102. 

12. ibid. 

13. Fus., P- 116/103. Many of the leading commentators give quite a different 
interpretation to the latter part of the passage just quoted. The difference comes 
from the fact that they take the particle hand in the sense of kay or li-kay ‘in order 
that’, while I take it to mean ‘until.’ The passage, according to their interpretation, 
would read: ‘It is impossible, in view of the very nature of the Absolute, that it should 
manifest itself to possible things (i.e., archetypes) in order to produce its own 

shadow in such a way that the “shadow” (once produced) would remain the same 
as the rest of the possible things to which no reality has yet been actualized in the 
empirical world. Thus interpreted, the passage would mean that those archetypes 
upon which the ‘shadow’ has been projected immediately obtain an ontological 
status differentiating them from the other archetypes that have not yet attained 
any degree of reality. This meaning, however, does not seem to fit in the present 

14. Fus., p. 117/103. 

15. ibid. 

16. p. 117. 

17. Fus., p- 118/103-104. 

18. Al-Qashani says (p. 103): When the Absolute manifests itself in the world of 
Command (i.e., in the spiritual world) to pure Spirits and non-corporeal Intellects, 
the self-manifestation is of the nature of light, because the forms in which the 
Absolute appears in this domain of pure spirituality are a ‘shadow’ made of light; it is 
transparent and has no darkness within. But the light passing through a colored glass 
is a symbol of the Absolute appearing in the form of a soul tinged with the coloring of 
the bodily constitution. The intellectual soul ( al-nafs al-na(iqah, i.e., the soul of 
man), although it is not bodily in itself, becomes turbid and colored by bodily 


Sufism and Taoism 

19. The reference to a famous Tradition in which God Himself speaks in the first 
person ( hadith qudsiy): ‘The servant (i.e. believer) never ceases to strive for super- 
reogatory works until I love him. And when I do love him, I am his hearing with 
which he hears and I am his sight with which he sees, etc.' 

20. p. 118. 

21. p. 273/219. 

VII The Divine Names 

The philosophical world-view of Ibn ‘Arabi is, concisely stated, a 
world-view of Divine self-manifestation ( tajalti ), for, as we have 
seen, as long as the Absolute remains in its absoluteness there can 
be nothing in existence that may be called the ‘world’, and the word 
‘world- view 5 itself would lose all meaning in the absence of the world. 

The principle of tajalli, on the world’s side, is the ‘preparedness’ 
(or ontological aptitude), and the same principle of tajalli from the 
standpoint of the Absolute is constituted by the Divine Names. The 
present chapter will deal thematically with the problem of tajalli in 
so far as it directly bears upon the Divine Names. 

Islamic theology discusses as one of the basic themes the question 
whether a Name (ism) is or is not the same as the ‘object named’ 
(musamm'a ) . Ibn ‘ Arabi gives his answer to this theological question 
by saying that a Name and its ‘object named’ are the same in one 
sense and different from each other in another sense. 

The reason why they are one and the same thing is that all the 
Divine Names, in so far as they invariably refer to the Absolute, are 
nothing but the ‘object named’ (i.e., the Essence [dhdt] of the 
Absolute) itself. Each name is a special aspect, or special form, of 
the Absolute in its self-manifestation. And in this sense, each Name 
is identical with the Essence. All the Divine Names, in other words, 
are ‘the realities of the relations’ (haqaiq al-nisab ),* i.e., the rela- 
tions which the One Reality bears to the world, and in this respect 
they are all the Divine Essence itself viewed from the standpoint of 
the various special relations which are caused by the phenomenon 
of Divine self-manifestation. 

The relations which the Absolute can possibly bear to the world 
are infinite, that is, to use Ibn ‘ArabFs peculiar terminology, the 
forms of the Divine self-manifestation are infinite in number. Con- 
sequently, the Divine Names are infinite. However, they can be 
classified and reduced to a certain number of basic Names. For 
example, it is generally recognized that the Qoran gives ninety-nine 
Names of God. 


Sufism and Taoism 

These Names, whether infinite or finite in number, can also be 
considered by themselves independently of the Essence to which 
they refer. In other words, they can be regarded as so many inde- 
pendent Attributes. Considered in this way, each Name has its own 
‘reality’ ( haqiqah ) by which it is distinguished from the rest of the 
Names. And in this respect, a Name is different from the ‘object 

Ibn ‘Arab! explains this point by making reference to the famous 
Sufi of the West, Abu al-Qasim b. Qasi (d. 1151). 2 

This is what is meant by Abu al-Qasim b. Qasi when he says in his 
book Taking Off The Sandals that every Divine Name carries in itself 
all the Divine Names and all their properties; this because every 
Name indicates both the Essence and the particular meaning of 
which it is the Name and which is especially required by the latter. 
Thus every single Name, in so far as it points to the Essence, contains 
all the Names, but in so far as it points to its own proper meaning, is 
different from all the rest, like ‘Lord’, ‘Creator’ or ‘Giver of the 
forms’ etc. The Name, in short, is the same as the ‘object named’ in 
regard to the Essence, but it is not the same as the ‘object named’ in 
regard to its own particular meaning. 

Thus the most conspicuous feature of the Divine Names is their 
double structure, that is, their having each two designations. Each 
Name designates, and points to, the unique Essence, while pointing 
to a meaning or reality which is not shared by any other Name. 

In the first aspect, every Name is one and the same as all other 
Names, because they all are indicative of the same Essence. In this 
respect, even such Names as appear to contradict each other (e.g., 
‘All-Forgiving’ and ‘Revenger’, ‘Outward’ and ‘Inward’, ‘First’ and 
‘Last’) are identical with each other. 

In the second aspect, on the contrary, each Name is something 
independent, something having its own peculiar reality. It definitely 
distinguishes itself from all others. The ‘Outward’ is not the same as 
the ‘Inward’ . And what a distance between the ‘First’ and the ‘Last’ ! 

It will have been made clear to you (by what precedes) in what sense 
each Name is the same as another and in what sense it is different 
from another. Each Name, in being the same as others, is the Abso- 
lute, and in being ‘other’ than others, is the ‘Absolute as it appears as 
a particular image’ ( al-haqq al-mutakhayyal ) . Glory be to Him who is 
not indicated by anything other than Himself and whose existence is 
established by nothing other than Himself and whose existence is 
established by nothing other than His own self ! 3 

The ‘Absolute as it appears in particular images’, i.e., the world, is 
nothing but the whole sum of the Divine Names as concretely 
actualized. And since it is the sole indicator of the absolute Abso- 

The Divine Names 


lute, the latter, after all, is not indicated by anything other than 
itself. The Absolute indicates itself by itself, and its concrete exist- 
ence is established by itself. Ibn ‘Arab! cannot withold his pro- 
found admiration for the beauty and the grandeur of this structure. 

We discussed in Chapter V the relation between the One and the 
Many. In terms of the main topic of the present chapter, the Many 
are the forms of the Absolute actualized in accordance with the 
requirements of the Names. The Many are the ‘Absolute as it 
appears in particular images’, i.e., the Absolute ‘imagined’ under 
the particular forms of the Names. And from this point of view, the 
One is the Essence {dhat) which is indicated by the Names and to 
which return all the Names. At this juncture Ibn ‘Arabi uses an 
interesting expression, ‘the names of the world’ ( asma ’ al-‘alam), as 
a counterpart to the Divine Names ( al-asma ’ al-ilahiyah). 4 

Whatever really exists in the world of Being is solely what is indicated 
by (the word) ‘unity’ ( ahadiyah ), whereas whatever exists only in 
imagination is what is indicated by ‘multiplicity’ (kathrah). Therefore 
he who sticks to the multiplicity stands on the side of the world, the 
Divine Names and the names of the world, while he who takes the 
position of the Unity stands on the side of the Absolute. The Abso- 
lute here is the Absolute considered in the Essence which is com- 
pletely independent of the whole world, not in its aspect of Divinity 
(i.e., being God) and its phenomenal forms. 

In this passage Ibn ‘Arabi states that the Absolute in its Essence is 
completely ‘independent’, i.e., has absolutely no need of the world. 
It is to be remarked that having no need of the world is the same as 
having no need of the Divine Names. The Names are, as we have 
observed above, the relations in which the Absolute stands to the 
creatures. They are there because of, and in the interests of, the 
creatures. The Essence in itself is not something which cannot 
subsist apart from such centrifugal relations. What needs the Names 
is not the Absolute, but the created world. He says; 5 

If the Essence is completely independent of the whole world, this 
independence must be the same independence by which the Essence 
transcends the Names to be attributed to it. For the Names indicate 
not only the Essence but particular ‘objects named ’ 6 which are differ- 
ent from the Essence. This is evidenced by the very effect of the 
Names . 7 

Thus, the Divine Names, in their centrifugal side turning toward 
multiplicity-diversity, are definitely ‘other’ than the Absolute, and 
the Absolute maintains its ‘independence’ in regard to them. But in 
their centripetal side turning toward the Essence, all the Divine 
Names are ultimately one because they are reducible to the 


Sufism and Taoism 

Absolute. And in this second aspect, the Absolute at the level of the 
Names is One as it is at the level of its absoluteness. 

The Absolute is in this way. One in two different senses . 8 

The Unity of God on the level of the Divine Names which require 
(the existence of) us (i.e., the phenomenal world) is the Unity of 
multiplicity ( ahadiyah al-kathrah ). And the Unity of God in the sense 
of being completely ‘independent’ of us and even of the Names is the 
Unity of essence ( ahadiyah al-'ayn). Both aspects are called by the 
same name: ‘One’. 

The Unity of multiplicity here spoken of is also called the Unity of 
‘unification’ ( ahadiyah al-jam‘). It plays an exceedingly important 
role in the world-view of Ibn ‘ Arabi, as we have already seen in what 
precedes and as we shall see in more detail in what follows. In brief, 
it is a position which recognizes multiplicity existing in potentia in 
the Absolute which is essentially One . 9 

We have observed above that the Absolute, in so far as it is the 
Absolute, does not need the Names, and that it is the creatures that 
need them. The latter half of this statement, namely, that the world 
needs the Divine Names, may be formulated in more philosophical 
terms by saying that the Names have the property of causality 
(‘illiyah or sababiyah). From this point of view, the Divine Names 
are the ‘cause’ {‘illah or sabab) for the existence of the world. The 
world needs the Divine Names in the sense that nothing in the world 
can exist without them. 

There can be no doubt that the world stands in essential need of many 
causes. And the greatest of all the causes which it needs is the 
Absolute. But the Absolute can act as the cause needed by the world 
only through the Divine Names as its cause. 

By ‘Divine Names’ here is meant every Name that is needed by the 
world (as its cause), whether it be part of the world itself or the very 
Absolute. In either case it is God, nothing else . 10 

This passage makes it clear that, in Ibn ‘Arabi’s view, if the world 
essentially needs as its cause the Absolute, it does not need the 
Absolute in its absoluteness but in its various aspects, such as 
‘creativity’, ‘Lordship’, etc. In other words, the Absolute on the 
level of the Names is the ‘cause’ of the world’s existence. Regarding 
the latter half of the passage, nothing, I think, could make its 
meaning more lucid than the following explanation by al-Qashani . 11 

The Divine Names are the very things which are needed by the world 
(as its causes). (Two cases are distinguished). The first is when the 
Name needed is something similar to the thing which needs it: e.g., 
‘son’ needs ‘father’ in his existence, sustenance and maintenance. In 
such a case the things needed are nothing but concrete forms taken by 

The Divine Names 


the Names of the Absolute, i.e., their concrete manifestations. The 
second case occurs when the thing needed is (directly) the Absolute 
itself: e.g., the ‘son’ is in need of the Absolute, the Former, the 
Creator, in having his own form, figure and character. This is differ- 
ent from (the first case in which) he needs something similar to 
himself (e.g., ‘father’). 

In either case, however, the Name needed is no other than the Name 
‘Allah’. (This may not be clear) in the first case, (but that it is so will 
be known from the following consideration). The causality of ‘father’ 
does not lie in the permanent archetype of ‘father’, for the latter is 
(actually) non-existent. The causality of ‘father’ comes from ‘father’ 
in its real existence, his action, and his power. But the existence (of 
‘father’) is essentially nothing but the Absolute as manifested in a 
locus of self-manifestation; and the action, the form, the ability, the 
power, the sustenance, and the maintenance - all these are but what 
naturally follows from existence: they are but Attributes of the 
Absolute and its Actions (in concrete forms). What properly pertains 
to ‘father’ is only being-receptive and being-a-locus-of-Divine- 
self-manifestation. As you already know, however, the one who 
merely receives has no positive activity; the positive activity belongs 
only to the One which manifests itself in (the receiver as) its locus of 
self-manifestation. (The causality of the Absolute) in the second case 
is too obvious to need explanation. 

The gist of the argument may conveniently be given in the following 
way: in the second case in which the world directly needs God, God 
is the ‘cause’ of the world; but in the first case, too, in which the 
things in the world need each other in the form of a cause-caused 
relation, it is again God who is the ultimate ‘cause’ of everything. 
When, for example, ‘son’ needs ‘father’, it is the causality of God 
that is working through the medium of ‘father’. 

We see in this way that everything in this world, every event 
which occurs in this world, is an actualization of a Divine Name, that 
is to say, a self-manifestation of the Absolute through a definite 
relative aspect called Divine Name. The conclusion to be drawn 
from this is that there are as many Divine Names as there are things 
and events in the world. The Divine Names in this sense are infinite 
in number. 

The Names of God are limitless because they become known by what 
comes out of them and what comes out of them is limitless . 12 
However, they are reducible to a limited number of basic Names 
( u$ul , lit. ‘roots’) which are the ‘Mothers’ of Names or, we might say, 
the ‘Presences’ (i.e., basic dimensions) of all the Names. 

The truth of the matter is that there is only one Reality ( haqiqah ) that 
receives all these relations and relative aspects which are called the 
Divine Names. And this same Reality requires that each of these 
Names that come into appearance limitlessly should have its own 


Sufism and Taoism 

reality which distinguishes it from all other Names. The Name is this 
reality which distinguishes each individual Name, not that thing (i.e., 
the Reality) which is common to all. This situation is comparable to 
the fact that the Divine gifts are distinguished from each other by 
their individual natures, though they are all from one source. 

It is evident that this is different from that, and the reason for this 
difference lies in the individual distinction of each Name. Thus in the 
Divine world, however wide it is, nothing repeats itself. This is a truly 
fundamental fact . 13 

Here again, as we see, we are brought back to the basic dictum: the 
One is the Many and the Many are the One. Only the dictum is here 
interpreted topically in terms of the Divine Names. The Many, i.e. 
the Divine Names, determine a point of view from which there is not 
even one thing that is the same as some other thing, because 
‘nothing repeats itself’ in the world. Even ‘one and the same thing’ 
is not in reality the same in two successive moments . 14 In general, 
any two things that are normally considered the same are not in 
reality the ‘same’; they are merely ‘similar to each other’ ( shab - 
ihan). And of course, ‘similar to each other’ means ‘different from 
each other’ (ghayran ). 15 However, from the point of view of the 
Essence, not only similar things but things that are widely different 
from each other, are one and the same thing. 

The sage who knows the truth sees multiplicity in ‘one’; likewise, he 
knows that the Divine Names, even though their (individual) realities 
are different and many, all point to one single Entity. This (difference 
among the Names) is but a multiplicity of an intelligible nature (i.e., 
existent only in potentia ) in the reality of the One. And this (intelli- 
gible multiplicity) turns into sensible multiplicity to be witnessed in 
one single Reality, when (the One) manifests itself (in the world). 
The situation may be best understood by what happens to Prime 
Matter ( hayula ) as it enters the inner structure of every ‘form’. In 
spite of their multiplicity and diversity, all the ‘forms’ ultimately are 
reducible to one single substance which is their ‘ matter’ . And ‘he who 
knows himself’ in this way ‘knows his Lord’, because (the Lord) has 
created him in His own image, nay, He is the very He-ness of the man 
and his true reality . 16 

All the Divine Names point to one single Reality, and in this sense 
they are, as we have just seen, all one. This, however, does not 
mean that all the Names stand on an equal level. On the contrary, a 
difference of degrees or ranks is observable among them. This 
difference of ranks corresponds to the difference of ranks among 
the things of the world. And this is natural because, in Ibn ‘ Arabi’s 
view, the Divine Names owe their very existence to the ontological 
requirements of the things. Ibn ‘Arab! explains this difference of 
ranks among the Names in the following terms : 17 

The Divine Names 


There is absolutely nothing except it (i.e., the Absolute ). 18 However, 
there must also be a certain respect in which we are obliged to use 
language of discrimination in order to account for the (observable) 
existence of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in the world, so that we might be able 
to talk about (for example) this man being ‘more’ learned than that, 
notwithstanding the essential unity (of ‘knowledge’) itself . 19 This 
implies (that there is a similar difference in rank between Attributes; 
that, for example,) the Will, in respect to the number of its objects, is 
inferior to Knowledge. 

Although Will and Knowledge are both Attributes of God and are 
one in this aspect, Will is lower than Knowledge. But that same Will 
is higher than Power. This because, generally speaking, ‘will’ begins 
to work only after one ‘knows’ something, and ‘will’ not only 
precedes ‘power’ but covers a wider field than the latter. Exactly the 
same kind of superior-inferior relation obtains among all the Divine 
Names. The thing to which they all point, that is, the Essence, stands 
on a transcendental height above all comparisons and relations, but 
the things other than the Divine Essence are different in ranks, 
some being ‘higher’ and others ‘lower’. Concerning the transcen- 
dental height of the Essence Ibn ‘Arab! says : 20 

The Transcendent ( al - ‘ aliy ) in itself is that which possesses the (abso- 
lute) perfection ( kamal ) in which are engulfed all existent things as 
well as non-existent relations 21 in such a way that there can absolutely 
be no property that is not found therein, whether it be something 
which is considered ‘good’ according to convention, Reason, and the 
Divine Law, or something to be judged ‘bad’ by the same standards. 
And this is a state of affairs which is observable exclusively in what is 
designated by the Name Allah. 

This passage is explicated by al-Qashani as follows : 22 

The Transcendent with a real and essential - not a relative - height, 
possesses an absolute perfection which comprises all the perfections 
pertaining to all things. The perfections comprised are (exhaustive), 
covering as they do both those that are positively existent and those 
that are in the nature of non-existence; some of them are ‘good’ in 
every possible aspect, and some of them are ‘bad’ in a certain respect. 
This last point may be understood if one remembers that some of the 
perfections are essentially of a relative nature and are ‘bad’ in rela- 
tion to some of the things; e.g., the valor of a lion in relation to his 
prey. But the absolute perfection must not lack even one property or 
ethical qualification or action. Otherwise, it would be imperfect in 
that particular aspect. 

Ibn ‘Arabi asserts that such an essential height and an absolute 
perfection can only belong to the One as determined by the primary 
self-determination on the level of the Onesness ( wahidiyah ) which 
gathers together all the Names. And this is the Greatest Name 

106 Sufism and Taoism 

( al-ism al-a‘zam) which is the very thing designated by the Name 
Allah or the Name Merciful (al-rahman) P In this state, all the Divine 
Names which have a positive effect (on the things of the world) are 
considered together as a unity; they are not considered in their aspect 
of multiplicity. 

Such is ‘God’ as the comprehensive whole unifying all the Names. 
As to ‘what is not the thing designated by the Name Allah’, i.e., all 
things that are not God, Ibn ‘Arab! distinguishes two kinds: (1) that 
which is a locus of theophany {mafia, i.e. the place of tajalli), and (2) 
that which is a form {$urah) in God, the word ‘form’ in this context 
meaning a particular Name by which the Divine Essence becomes 

‘What is not the thing designated by the Name Allah' is either a locus 
of the self-manifestation of it or a form subsisting in it. In the former 
case, it is quite natural that there should occur a difference of ranks 
between individual loci. In the second case, the ‘form’ in question is 
the very essential perfection (belonging, as we have seen, to the 
Transcendent) for the form is nothing other than what is mani- 
fested in it (i.e., the Transcendent itself), so that what belongs to that 
which is designated by the Name Allah must also belong to the 
form . 24 

The meaning of this seemingly obscure passage may be made 
explicit in the following way. In case ‘other than God’ signifies a 
locus of theophany, the One Absolute is witnessed in the concrete 
things of the world as so many loci of theophany. In this case the 
Absolute assumes various different aspects in accordance with the 
natures of the individual things. And there naturally arise various 
ranks and degrees according to the more-or-less of the self- 
manifestation. 25 But in case ‘other than God’ signifies a ‘form’ in 
God, various forms are witnessed in the Absolute itself. And in this 
case, each one of the forms will possess the very same essential 
perfection which is possessed by the whole, i.e., God. If God pos- 
sesses perfection, the same perfection must necessarily be possessed by 
each ‘form’ because the latter appears in nothing other than God. 

The existents thus differ ontologically from each other in rank, but 
taken as a whole, they constitute among themselves a well- 
organized order. And this ontological order corresponds to the 
order formed by the Divine Names. 

Two things are worth remarking concerning this theologico- 
ontological hierarchy. (1) A higher Name implicitly contains all the 
Names that are lower than itself. And, correspondingly, a higher 
existent, as a locus of the self-manifestation of a higher Name, 
contains in itself all the lower existents. (2) Every single Name, 

The Divine Names 107 

regardless of its rank in the hierarchy, contains in a certain sense all 
the other Names. And, correspondingly, every single part of the 
world contains all the other parts of the world. Ibn ‘Arab! says: 26 

When you assign a higher rank to a Divine Name, you are thereby 
calling it (implicitly) by all the Names (that stand lower than it) and 
attributing to it all the properties (that belong to the Names of lower 
ranks). The same is true of the things of the world; every higher being 
possesses the capacity of comprehending all that is lower than itself. 
However, every particle of the world is (virtually) the whole of the 
world, that is, every single particle is capable of receiving into itself all 
the realities of all single particles of the world. So the observed fact, 
for instance, that Zayd is inferior to ‘ Amr in knowledge does not in 
any way prevent the same He-ness of the Absolute being the very 
essence of Zayd and ‘Amr; nor does it prevent the He-ness being 
more perfect, more conspicuous in ‘Amr than in Zayd. 

This situation corresponds to the fact that the Divine Names differ 
from each other in rank while being all no other than the Absolute. 
Thus, for example, God as ‘Knower’ is more comprehensive, regard- 
ing the domain covered, than God as ‘Wilier’ or ‘Powerful’, and yet 
God is God in every case. 

Of the numerous Divine Names, the greatest and most comprehen- 
sive, and the most powerful one is the ‘Merciful’ ( rahman ). It is a 
‘comprehensive’ (shamil) Name in that it gathers all the Names 
together into a unity. And the Absolute on this level of unity is 
called Allah. In the following two chapters these two Names will be 
discussed in detail. 


1. Fw>., p. 193/153. 

2. Fus., p. 70/79-80. 

3. Fu$., p. 119/104. 

4. fks., p. 120/104-105. 

5. ibid. 

6. i.e., particular Attributes which are, more concretely, various particular aspects 
of the world. 

7. i.e., the fact that the Names indicate besides the Essence the special aspects of the 
world as something different from the Essence is clearly shown by the created world 
itself which is the very effect of the Names. 

8. Fu$., p. 121/105. 


Sufism and Taoism 

9. Ibn ‘Arabi here distinguishes between two types of ahadiyah or ‘Unity’. In his 
technical terminology, the first kind of Unity, i.e., the Unity of multiplicity at the 
ontological stage of Divine Names and Attributes, is specifically called wahidlyah 
‘Oneness (of Many)’ and is thereby strictly distinguished from the absolute, pure 
Unity (ahadiyah), the Unity of Divine Essence. It will be well to remember that there 
is in his system one more basic type of ahadiyah. It is the Unity of ‘actions and effects’ 

(, ahadlyah al-afal wa-al-athar) and is symbolized by the name of the prophet Hud. 
Al-Qashani (p. 123) refers to these three types of Unity as follows: ‘There are three 
degrees in the Unity. The first is the Unity of the Essence. (God is called at this stage 
ahad “One” or “Unique” in a non-numerical sense). The second is the Unity of the 
Names. This is the stage of Divinity, and God is called at this stage wahid “One” in a 
numerical sense). The third is the Unity of Lordship ( rububiyah ) or the Unity of 
actions and effects’. This last kind of Unity means that whatever we may do in this 
world, whatever may happen in this world, everything is ‘walking along the straight 
road’. Everything, every event, occurs in strict accordance with the law of Being 
(which is nothing other than the Absolute). All are ‘one’ in this sense. 

10. Fu$.,p. 122/105-106. 

11. p. 122. 

1 2. ‘The Essence as the Unity is, in relation to each single thing that comes out of it, a 
particular Name. Thus whenever a determination comes into being there is a Name 
therein. And the relations (of the Essence with the things of the world) are limitless 
because the receptacles (i.e., the things that receive the self-manifestation of the 
Absolute) and their natural dispositions are limitless. Thus it comes about that the 
Names of God are limitless’ - al-Qashani, p. 38. 

13. Fuy, pp. 38-39/65. 

14. This is the concept of the ‘ever new creation’ ( khalq jadid), which will be 
discussed in detail later. 

15. Fuy., p. 152/124-125. 

16. ibid. 

17. Fwj., p. 193/153. 

18. He means to say: since everything is a self-manifestation of the Absolute 
through a particular Name, all that exist in the world are nothing but the Absolute. 

19. This example properly concerns only the existence of degrees in one single 
attribute called ‘knowledge’. But the real intention of Ibn ‘Arabi is to maintain that 
there is also a difference of degrees between ‘knowledge’ itself and other attributes. 

20. Fu$., p. 69/79. 

21. As we have observed before, the relations ( nisab ) are in themselves essentially 

22. p. 69. 

23. On Allah = the Merciful see the next two chapters which will be devoted 
specifically to this question. 

The Divine Names 


24. Fw$., p. 69/79. 

25. If, for example, all the Divine Names are actualized in a thing, it will be the 
Perfect Man, while if the most of the Names are manifested, it will be an ordinary 
(non-perfect) man, and if the number of the Names manifested happens to be far less 
than that, it will be an inanimate thing - al-Qashani, p. 69. 

26. Fuy., pp. 193-194/153. 


Allah and the Lord 


VIII Allah and the Lord 

One of the cardinal elements of Ibn ‘ Arabi’s thought on God is the 
theologico-ontological difference between Allah and the Lord 
( rabb ). In the Chapter of Noah (Qoran, LXXI) to which reference 
was made before, Noah addressing himself to God uses the expres- 
sion ‘O my lord (rabb-i)' he does not say ‘O my God (ilah-iy . In 
this Ibn ‘Arabi find a special meaning. 

Noah said ‘ O my Lord’ , he did not say 1 O my God’ . This because the 

‘ Lord’ has a rigid fixity (thubiit), while 'God' ( ilah ) is variable with the 

Names in such a way that ‘He is every day in a new state ’. 2 

This short passage contains the gist of Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s thought on the 
difference and relation between Allah and the Lord. It may be 
explicated as follows. 

The Lord is the Absolute as manifested through a particular 
concrete Name, while Allah is the Absolute who never ceases to 
change and transform Himself from moment to moment according 
to the Names. The Lord has a rigid ‘fixity’ in the sense that it is the 
Absolute in one particular aspect being bound and determined by 
one particular Name or Attribute suitable for the occasion. Hence a 
very particular relation between the Lord and man; namely, that 
man, whenever he prays to God and makes petition or supplication 
to Him, he must necessarily address himself to his Lord. An ailing 
man prays to God not vaguely and generally but in the ‘fixed’ form 
of the ‘Healer’ (shaft). Likewise, a sinner asking for Divine forgive- 
ness supplicated the ‘All-forgiving’ ( ghajur ). And he who wants 
something prays to the ‘Giver’ (m«‘li), 3 etc. 

God under each of these and other similar Names is the Lord of 
the particular man who prays from a particular motive. Hence 
al-Qashani’s definition 4 of the Lord: the Lord is the Essence taken 
with a particular Attribute through which (the man who prays) 
obtains what he needs; thus it is, of all the Divine Names, the most 
suitable one for the occasion which motivates the man when he 
addresses himself to God. This is the reason why Noah, in the 
Qoranic verse in questions, says ‘my Lord’ . Lordship ( rububiyah ) in 

this sense means the truly personal relationship of each individual 
man with God. 

It is to be remarked that this individual relationship is also of an 
ontological nature. In the Qoran (XIX, 55) it is related that IsmaTl 
(Ishmael) ‘was approved by his Lord’, that is, his Lord was satisfied 
with Ishmael. But if we understand the phrase ‘his Lord’ in the 
particular sense in which Ibn ‘Arabi understands it, we must admit 
that not only Ishmael but every being is approved by his Lord. As 
Ibn ‘Arabi says: 5 

Indeed, every being is approved by his Lord. From the fact, however, 
that every being is approved by his Lord it does not follow necessarily 
that every being is approved by the Lord of another creature. This is 
because every being has chosen a particular form of Lordship from 
among all (the possible types of Lordship contained in the absolute 
Lordship) and not from one single Lordship (commonly shared by 
all). Every being has been given out of the (infinitely variable) whole 
only what particularly fits it, and that precisely is its Lord. 

As al-Qashani says, 6 ‘the Lord (i.e., its Lord) demands of every 
being only that which (naturally) appears in it, while the being, in its 
turn, because of its ‘preparedness’, does not demand of its Lord 
except those attributes and actions that its Lord causes to appear in 
it (naturally)’ . In other words, when the Absolute manifests itself in 
each individual being, it is able to do so only through one particular 
Name because of the natural limitation set by the ‘preparedness’ of 
that particular being. But this is exactly what is willed by the 
Absolute and what is desired by the recipient, there being no 
discordance between the two parties. And this is what is meant by 
everything being approved by its own Lord. 

It must be noticed that Ibn ‘Arabi is no longer speaking of the 
personal relationship between a man and his Lord established by 
the act of prayer and supplication, but has clearly shifted his interest 
to the ontological aspect of the problem. And in fact, there is an 
ontological aspect to the personal relation between each individual 
being and his Lord. 

In the phenomenon of ‘prayer’, from which Ibn ‘Arab! has 
started, each single Name has been regarded as representing a 
particular aspect of the Absolute. But a Divine Name, in order to 
actualize, necessarily requires a particular being. A particular being 
in that capacity is a locus of the self-manifestation of that Name. 
And in this context, each individual being, as a locus in which a 
particular Name is manifested, maintains with the Absolute the 
same individual relationship as in the ‘prayer’ context. Only it 
maintains the same individual relationship, this time, on the 
ontological level. 



Sufism and Taoism 

It follows from this that each individual being or thing, at each 
particular moment, picks up only one out of many Names, and the 
Name chosen behaves as his or its Lord. Looking at the situation 
from the reverse side, we can express the same thing by saying that it 
never happens that the Absolute should manifest itself as it is in its 
original Oneness, i.e., the comprehensive unity of the Names, in any 
being. Ibn ‘Arabi goes on to say: 7 

No being can establish a particular Lord-servant relationship with 
the Absolute on the level of Unity. This is why the true sages have 
denied the possibility of Divine self-manifestation ( tajalli ) on the 
level of Unity. . . . 8 

The Absolute on the level of Oneness is a synthesis of all Names, 
and as such, no one single being is able to contain it. Only the world 
as an integral whole can actualize the Oneness of the Names and 
offer an ontological counterpart to it. However, Ibn ‘Arabi seems to 
admit one exceptional case. As al-Qashani says, the exception 
arises in the case of the Perfect Man. Unlike ordinary men, the 
Perfect Man actualizes and manifests not one single particular 
Name but all the Names in their synthesis. An ordinary man is 
approved by his particular Lord. The latter is his Lord; not the Lord 
of other people. So that no ordinary man is in direct relation with 
the absolute Lord ( al-rabb al-mutlaq). The Perfect Man, on the 
contrary, actualizes in himself all the attributes and actions of the 
One who approves of him not as his Lord alone but as the absolute 

The expression, ‘the absolute Lord’, used by al-Qashani corres- 
ponds to the Qoranic expression, ‘the Lord of the worlds’ ( rabb 
al-‘alamin , and is equivalent to ‘the Lord of all Lords’ ( rabb al- 
arbab ) or Allah. Thus the statement that, in normal cases, the 
Names in their original synthesis can never be actualized in any 
single being, amounts to the same thing as saying that Allah as such 
cannot be the Lord of any particular individual. 

Know that the object designated by the Name Allah is unitary 
(i ahadiy ) in regard to the Essence, and a synthesis ( kull ) in regard to 
the Names. Every being is related to Allah only in the form of his 
particular Lord; it is impossible for any being to be related to Allah 
directly in the original form of synthesis. . . . 

And blessed indeed is he who is approved by his Lord! But, properly 
speaking, there is no one who is not approved by his Lord, because he 
(i.e., every individual) is just the thing by which the Lordship of the 
Lord subsists. Thus every individual being is approved by his Lord, 
and every individual being is happy and blessed. 9 

In the latter half of this passage an intimate reciprocal relationship is 
affirmed between each individual being and his Lord. It goes with- 

Allah and the Lord 

out saying that every being depends essentially on his Lord for his 
existence. But the Lord also depends, in a certain sense, upon the 
receptive ability ( qabiliyah ) 10 of the individual being of whom He is 
the Lord. The Lord can never be a Lord without there being 
someone to be ‘lorded over’ ( marbub ). Ibn ‘Arabi refers at this 
point to the following dictum left by Sahl al-Tustari, a famous 
Sufi-theologian of the ninth century. 11 

‘The Lordship has a secret, and that (secret) is thyself’ - here (by 
saying thyself) Sahl is addressing himself to every individual being 
that exists in concrete reality - ‘if it were nullified, 12 the Lordship 
itself would come to naught’. Remark well that Sahl says if which 
implies an impossibility of the actual occurrence of the event in 
question. In other words, this (secret) will never be nullified, and, 
consequently, the Lordship will never come to naught. For there can 
be no existence for any being except by virtue of its Lord, but as a 
matter of fact every individual being is forever existent (if not in the 
physical world, at least in some of the non-physical dimensions of 
reality). Thus the Lordship will forever be existent. 

As has been suggested in the preceding more than once, the ‘Lord’, 
in Ibn ‘ArabFs thought, is considered on two different levels: (1) 
‘absolute’ ( muflaq ) and (2) ‘relative’ (iddfiy). The Lord on the 
‘absolute’ level is Allah , while on the second level the Lord is the 
Lord of one particular being and is an actualized form of one 
particular Name. From the viewpoint of the concept itself of ‘Lord’ 
(rabb), the ‘relative’ is the proper case, the Lord in the ‘absolute’ 
sense being only an extremely exceptional case. This fact is 
explained by al-Qashani in the following way: 13 

Rabb is properly a relative term and necessarily requires its object 
(marbub, lit. ‘the one who is lorded over’). The word rabb in Arabic is 
used in three senses: (1) ‘possessor’ , e.g. rabb al-dar (the possessor of 
the house), rabb al-ghanam (the possessor of the cattle) etc., (2) 
‘master’, e.g., rabb al-qawm (the master of the people), rabb al-‘abid 
(the master of the slaves) etc., (3) ‘one who brings up’, e.g., rabb 
al-sabi (the one who brings up the boy), rabb al-tifl (one who brings 
up the infant) etc. 

The word rabb is not applicable in the non-relative sense except to 
the Lord of the whole universe. In this case we say al-rabb with a 
definite article (without mentioning the ‘object’ of Lordship). 
Thereby is meant Allah alone. And to Him belongs in an essential 
way the Lordship in the three meanings distinguished above, while to 
anybody other than Allah the lordship belongs only accidentally. For 
‘other than Allah' is but a locus in which it (i.e., the Lordship 
belonging properly to Allah) is manifested. 

Thus Lordship is an attribute properly belonging to one single thing 
(i.e., Allah) but appearing in many forms (as ‘relative’ lordships). 
Everybody in whom it is manifested possesses an accidental lordship 



Sufism and Taoism 

in accordance with the degree to which he is given the power of free 
disposal which he may exercise over his possessions, slaves or 

Since the attribute of Lordship differs from locus to locus in its 
self-manifestation, there necessarily arise a number of degrees. Thus 
he who has been given a stronger control (over his possessions) than 
others has naturally a higher lordship. 

Thus we see that the ‘Lord’, whether ‘absolute’ or ‘relative’, essen- 
tially requires an object over which to exercise the Lordship. The 
rabb , in short, cannot subsist without marbiib. And this holds true 
even when the Lord in question happens to be no other than God. 
The only one who does not need anything other than himself is, as 
we know, the Absolute in its absoluteness, i.e., the Divine Essence. 

The Divine Names are essentially the same as the Named. And the 
Named is (ultimately) no other than God. (But a difference comes 
into being because) the Names (unlike the Essence) do not cease to 
require the realities which they themselves produce. And the realities 
which the Names require are nothing other than the world. Thus 
Divinity ( uluhiyah , i.e., the Absolute’s being God) requires the 
object to which it appears as God ( ma’luh , lit. an object which is 
‘god-ed’), as Lordship requires its own object {marbub ‘lord-ed’). 
Otherwise, i.e., apart from the world, it (i.e., Divinity or Lordship) 
has no reality of its own. 

What is absolutely free from any need of the world is solely the 
Absolute qua Essence. The Lordship has no such property. 

Thus Reality is reducible to two aspects: what is required by the 
Lordship on the one hand, and, on the other, the complete indepen- 
dence from the world which is rightly claimed by the Essence. But 
(we may go a step further and reduce these two aspects to one, 
because) in reality and in truth the Lordship is nothing other than the 
Essence itself . 14 

We come to know in this way that the ‘Lord’ is no other than the 
Essence ( dhat ) considered as carrying various relations ( nisab ). We 
must not forget, however, that these relations are no real entities 
subsisting in the Divine Essence. They are simply so many subjec- 
tive points of view peculiar to the human mind which cannot by 
nature approach the Divine Essence except through them. 


Allah and the Lord 

ship is the ‘Presence of actions ( afaiy , i.e., the plane of those 
Names that are specifically concerned with Divine actions in 
administering, sustaining, and controlling the affairs of the 


1. LXXI, 5, 21, 26. 

2. Fus., p. 57/73. 

3. Cf. Affifi, Fus„ Com., p. 42. 

4. p. 57. 

5. Fus., p. 95/91. 

6. p. 95. 

7. Fus., p. 95/91-92. 

8. In this passage Ibn ‘Arabi uses the term ‘Unity’ (ahadiyah) in the sense of 
wahidiyah. It goes without saying that there can be no exterior tajalli on the level of 
ahadiyah, because, as we have seen in the earlier contexts, ahadiyah is the absolute 
state of Essence (dhat) before it begins to split itself into the Names. The real 
intention of Ibn ‘Arab! in this passage, however, is to assert that even on the level of 
the Oneness ( wahidiyah ) where the Absolute is ‘God comprising and unifying all the 
Names into one’ no individual being is able to be a locus of the self-manifestation of 
the Oneness in its integrity. 

9. Fus., PP- 93-94/90-91. 

10. Qashani, p. 94. 

11. Fus., P- 94/90-91. 

12. As Affifi (Com., p. 87) says, the word zahara ‘appear’, ‘be disclosed’ here has a 
meaning diametrically opposed to the usual one; namely, that it must be understood 
in the meaning of zala ‘disappear’ or ‘cease to exist’ . Many examples of this usage of 
the word can be adduced from ancient poetry. 

13. pp. 262-263. 

Incidentally, we have seen, in the above-quoted passage, Ibn ‘Arabi 
making a distinction between Divinity ( uluhiyah ) and Lordship 
(rububiyah). The Divinity represents, as al-Qashani says , 15 the 
‘Presence’ or ontological plane of the Names, that is, of those 
Names that belong to the Absolute considered as God. In this plane, 
the Absolute ( qua God) is the object of veneration, praise, awe, 
fear, prayer, and obedience on the part of the creatures. The Lord- 

14. Fus -, P- 143/119. 

15. pp. 143-144. 

IX Ontological Mercy 

The two preceding chapters will have made it clear that there is a 
difference of ranks among the Divine Names, and that a higher 
Name virtually contains in itself all the Names of lower ranks. If 
such is the case, then it is natural for us to suppose that there must be 
in this hierarchy the highest, i.e., the most comprehensive, Name 
that contains all the rest of the Names. And in fact, according to Ibn 
‘Arab!, there actually is such a Name: ‘Merciful’ (Rahman). The 
present chapter will be devoted to a detailed consideration of Ibn 
‘ArabFs thought concerning this highest Name, its nature and its 

From the very beginning, the concept of Divine Mercy was a 
dominant theme in Islamic thought. The Qoran emphasizes con- 
stantly and everywhere the boundless Mercy of God shown toward 
the creatures. The Mercy of God is indeed ‘wide’; it covers every- 
thing. Ibn ‘Arabi, too, greatly emphasizes the boundless width of 
Divine Mercy. ‘Know that the Mercy of God extends to everything, 
both in actual reality and possibility ’. 1 

However, there is one important point at which his understanding 
of ‘mercy’ ( rahmah ) differs totally from the ordinary common- 
sense understanding of the term. In the ordinary understanding, 
rahmah denotes an essentially emotive attitude, the attitude of 
compassion, kindly forbearance, pity, benevolence, etc. But, for Ibn 
‘Arabi, rahmah is rather an ontological fact. For him, rahmah is 
primarily the act of making things exist, giving existence to them. It 
is bestowal of existence, with, of course, an overtone of a subjective, 
emotive attitude on the part of the one who does so. 

God is by essence ‘overflowing with bounteousness’ (fay y ad 
bi-al-jud ), that is, God is giving out existence limitlessly and end- 
lessly to everything. As al-Qashani says, ‘existence ( wujud ) is the 
first overflowing of the Mercy which is said to extend to every- 
thing ’. 2 

Such an understanding of rahmah gives a very particular coloring 
to the interpretation of the ethical nature of God which plays an 

Ontological Mercy 


important role in the Qoran and in Islam in general. This is best 
illustrated by Ibn ‘ArabFs interpretation of the concept of Divine 

As is well known, the Qoran, while emphasizing that God is the 
Merciful, stresses at the same time that He is also a God of Wrath, a 
God of Vengeance. The God of the Qoran is God of justice. He 
shows unlimited love and compassion toward the good and pious, 
but that does not prevent Him from inflicting relentless punishment 
and chastisement upon those who do wrong, those who refuse to 
believe in Him and obey Him. 

Ibn ‘Arabi, too, admits God’s wrath’ (ghadab). For him, how- 
ever, ghadab is not an ordinary emotion of anger. It is, like its 
counterpart, rahmah , something of an ontological nature. 
Moreover, it is put in a subordinate position in relation to rahmah, 
for ghadab itself is but an object of the boundless rahmah of God. 

The very existence of Wrath originates from the Mercy of God for the 
Wrath. Thus His Mercy precedes His Wrath . 3 

This statement would seem to need an explication. Here is what 
al-Qashani says about it : 4 

Mercy pertains essentially to the Absolute because the latter is by 
essence ‘Bounteous’ (jawad) . . . Wrath, however, is not of the 
essence of the Absolute. On the contrary, it is simply a negative 
property that arises from the absence of receptivity on the part of 
some of the things for a perfect manifestation of the effects of 
existence and the various properties of existence. 

The absence of receptivity in some of the things for Mercy entails the 
non-appearance of Mercy (in those things), whether in this world or 
the Hereafter. And the fact that Divine Mercy is prevented from 
overflowing into a thing of this kind because of its non-receptivity is 
called Wrath in relation to that particular thing. . . . 

Thus it is patent that Mercy has precedence over Wrath with regard 
to the Absolute, for Wrath is nothing but the actual non-receptivity 
of the locus which is (supposed to receive) Mercy in a perfect form. 

We ordinarily imagine that what we call ‘evil’ (sharr) is something 
positive, something positively existent. But ‘evil’ is in itself a pure 
non-existence (‘adam). It exists only in the purely negative sense 
that a certain thing, when Divine Mercy works upon it, cannot by 
nature receive and accept it as it should. In other words, ‘evil’ is the 
negative situation of those things which cannot receive Mercy 
( = existence) in its full and perfect form, and which, therefore, 
cannot fully realize existence. 

Apart from these things which constitute the objects of Divine 
Wrath, or, more philosophically speaking, the things that properly 
cannot have existence, all the remaining things which naturally have 


Sufism and Taoism 

the proper receptivity for existence, demand of God existence. And 
the Divine activity which arises in response to this demand is Mercy. 
It is natural, then, that Mercy should cover all things that can 
possibly exist. 

Every essence (‘ ayn , i.e., everything in its archetypal state) asks for 
existence from God. Accordingly God’s Mercy extends to, and cov- 
ers, every essence. For God, by the very Mercy which He exercises 
upon it, accepts (i.e., recognizes approvingly) the thing’s (latent) 
desire to exist (even before the desire actually arises) and brings it 
(i.e., the desire) out to existence. This is why we assert that the Mercy 
of God extends to everything both in actual reality and possibility. 5 

Everything, already in its archetypal state, cherishes latently a 
desire ( raghbah ) for actual existence. God’s Mercy extends even to 
this ontological desire while it is still in the state of mere possibility, 
and brings it out into existence. The desire thus actualized consti- 
tutes the ‘preparedness’ ( istVdad ) of the thing. The explication of 
the above passage by al-Qashanl is philosophically of great 
importance. 6 

The permanent archetypes in their state of latency have only an 
intelligible existence (as objects of God’s Knowledge) ; by themselves 
they have no actual existence. They are desirous of actual existence, 
and are asking for it from God. When the archetypes are in such a 
state, God’s essential Mercy extends to every archetype by giving it a 
capacity to receive an ontological Divine self-manifestation. This 
receptivity, or the essential ‘preparedness’ f or receiving existence, is 
exactly the archetype’s desire for actual existence. 

Thus the very first effect of the essential Mercy upon an archetype 
appears in the form of its natural aptitude for receiving existence. 
This aptitude is called ‘preparedness’. God exercises Mercy upon an 
archetype, even before it has the ‘preparedness’ for existence, by 
existentiating the ‘preparedness’ itself through the ‘ most holy emana- 
tion’ ( al-fayd al-aqdas), i.e., the essential self-manifestation occur- 
ring in the Unseen. Thus the ‘preparedness’ of an archetype is itself (a 
result of) Divine Mercy upon it (i.e., the archetype), for previous to 
that, the archetype properly speaking has no existence if only to ask 
for its own ‘preparedness’. 

These words make it clear that the exercise of Divine Mercy is 
nothing other than the process of the self-manifestation of the 
Absolute, which has often been referred to in the preceding pages. 
For Mercy is bestowal of existence, and, in Ibn ‘ Arabi’s conception, 
the Absolute’s bestowing existence upon the things of the world is 
exactly the same as the Absolute’s manifesting itself in these things. 

In the passage just quoted, al-Qashanl states that the first stage in 
the appearance of Mercy is the giving of ‘preparedness’ for exist- 
ence to things not yet actually existent. And he says this stage 


Ontological Mercy 

corresponds to the ‘most holy emanation’ in the theory of Divine 
self-manifestation. But this is somewhat misleading because it pre- 
sents the whole matter in an extremely simplified form. We shall 
have to reconsider in detail the process by which Divine Mercy is 
manifested, following closely what Ibn ‘Arab! himself says about it. 
Unfortunately, though, this is one of the most obscure parts of the 
Fusuy. Let us first quote the whole passage, and then split it into 
three parts representing, as I think, the three major stages in the 
gradual appearance of Mercy. 7 

The Divine Names are ‘things’, and they all are ultimately reducible 
to one single Essence (1). 

The first object to which the Mercy is extended is the very thing-ness 
(i.e., the primary ontological reality by dint of which anything 
becomes cognizable as ‘something’) of that Essence (‘ayn) which 
produces the Mercy itself out of Mercy. Thus the first thing to which 
the Mercy is extended is the Mercy itself (2). Then (in the second 
stage, the object of the Mercy is) the thing-ness of (the Names) that 
has just been mentioned (3). Then (in the third stage, it is) the 
thing-ness of all existents that come into being without end, both of 
this world and of the Hereafter, whether substances or accidents, 
composite or simple (4). 

The first stage in the appearance of Divine Mercy is referred to in 
the second sentence (2) in this passage. The situation will be more 
understandable if we describe it analytically in the following terms. 

In the bosom of the absolute Absolute, or the abysmal Darkness, 
there appears first a faint foreboding, a presentment, so to speak, of 
the Mercy. Since, however, the Mercy, before it begins positively to 
manifest itself, is a non-existent (‘adam), it needs something which 
would bestow upon it ‘existence’, that is, another Mercy preceding 
it. But there can be no Mercy preceding the Divine Mercy. The only 
possibility then, is that the Divine Mercy is exercised upon itself. 
The self-Mercy of the Mercy constitutes the very first stage in the 
appearance of Mercy. 

Looking at the same situation from the point of view of the 
ontological Divine self-manifestation (tajalli) we might describe it 
as the first appearance of a foreboding of ‘existence’. And the 
appearance of a foreboding (or possibility) of ‘existence’ in the 
absolute Absolute means nothing else than the Absolute becoming 
conscious of itself as ‘existence’. It is the self-manifestation of the 
Absolute to itself. And in terms of ‘emanation’ to which reference 
has been made, this stage represents the beginning of the ‘most holy 
emanation’ of the Absolute. 

The sentence (2) in the above passage is intended to be a theoreti- 
cal formulation of this phenomenon. It means that ‘the first object 
of the Mercy is the thing-ness (shay’iyah) of that Essence (i.e., the 


Sufism and Taoism 

absolute Divine Essence) which, with its own Mercy, brings Mercy 
into existence’. It implies that by the very first manifestation of its 
own Mercy, the absolutely Unknown-Unknowable turns into a 
‘thing’ (shay’). And to say that the Absolute obtains ‘thing-ness’, 
i.e., an ontological status by which it presents itself as a ‘thing’ - 
which is the most general, the most undetermined of all determina- 
tions - is to say that a process of ‘self-objectification’ has already 
begun to take place within the Absolute itself. This is the appear- 
ance of self-consciousness on the part of the Absolute, and is, for 
the world, the appearance of a faint light just preceding the advent 
of the dawn of existence. In this state there exists as yet nothing at all 
except the Absolute, but the bestowal of existence which is, theo- 
logically, the ‘creation’, is already steadily operating. 

The second stage in the appearance of Mercy is the establishment of 
the thing-ness of the Names or the permanent archetypes, referred 
to by sentences (1) and (3) in the above-quoted passage. At this 
stage, the Mercy, which has turned the absolutely Unknown- 
Unknowable into a ‘thing’, now extends to all the Names and 
bestows upon them existence. The Names are thereby given 
‘thing-ness’, and become ‘things’. 

On the side of tajalli, the second stage represents the completion 
of the ‘most holy emanation’ . Unlike the first stage, the second stage 
brings us closer to the external world of sensible experience, but 
even at this stage the tajalli is not an external tajalli ; it is still an event 
occurring inside the Unseen. Only the Unseen (ghayb) here is no 
longer a primordial state of total indiscrimination, for the essential 
forms of the things are already clearly discernible. These forms of 
the things (guwar al-mawjuddat ) in the darkness of the Unseen are 
the Divine Names. And the Absolute, as we have seen earlier, 
reveals itself to itself by being manifested in these essences. This is 
the final form in which Divine Consciousness makes its appearance, 
and thus is completed the ‘most holy emanation’. 

These essential forms constituting the content of Divine Con- 
sciousness are the first ‘determinations’ ( ta‘ayyunat ) that appear in 
the Essence in its relation with the creaturely world. And the 
‘ thing-ness’ that arises at this stage is nothing other than the being of 
the permanent archetypes, and is, therefore, different from the 
thing-ness of the first stage. For all the existents at this stage, 
although they still maintain the essential unity peculiar to the first 
stage, have, at the same time, the meaning of being the totality of 
the essences which are in potentia divisible. And the Mercy which is 
at work at this stage is the Mercy of the Divine Names ( rahmah 
asma’iyah ), and is to be distinguished from the Mercy operating at 
the first stage, which is the Mercy of the Essence (rahmah dhatiyah). 


Ontological Mercy 

The third stage in the appearance of the Mercy is described in 
sentence (4) of the above passage. After having brought into exist- 
ence the Divine Names (the second stage), the Mercy causes the 
individual things to arise as concrete actualizations of the Names. 
The ontological activity of the Mercy becomes thereby completed, 
and the tajalli, on its part, reaches its final stage. This is what Ibn 
‘Arab! calls the ‘holy emanation’ (al-fayd al-muqaddas ) to be tech- 
nically distinguished from the above-mentioned ‘most holy emana- 
tion’ (al-fayd al-aqdas ). Thus, the Mercy, starting from the Divine 
Essence itself, ends by being extended over all the possible beings of 
phenomenal reality, and comes to cover the whole world. 

It is to be remarked that the activity of the Mercy covering the whole 
world of Being is absolutely impartial and indiscriminating. It 
extends literally over everything. In understanding the nature of its 
activity, we should not associate with it anything human with which 
the word ‘mercy’ (rahmah) is usually associated. 

There does not come into its activity any consideration of attaining an 
aim, or of a thing’s being or not being suitable for a purpose. Whether 
suitable or unsuitable, the Divine Mercy covers everything and any- 
thing with existence . 8 

Such an indiscriminating and gratuitous Mercy is called by Ibn 
‘Arab! the ‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’ (rahmah al-imtinan). 9 It is 
totally gratuitous; freely bestowed without any particular 
justification. The gift is given not in reward for something good 
done. As al-Qashani defines it, 10 the ‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’ is an 
essential Mercy which extends to all things without exception. It is 
extended to anything whatsoever because it is not a reward for some 
act. Thus anything that acquires thing-ness obtains this Mercy. 

The Mercy in this sense is synonymous with ‘existence’. And to 
exercise ‘mercy’ means to bestow ‘existence’ by way of a gratuitous 
gift. This is, for Ibn ‘Arabi, the meaning of the Qoranic verse: ‘My 
Mercy covers everything’ (VII, 156). It means that the Absolute 
bestows existence upon everything without any discrimination. 

In contrast, there is a kind of ‘mercy’ which is more human in 
nature, that is, the kind of ‘mercy’ which is exercised in reward for 
some act done. Ibn ‘Arabi calls this second type the ‘Mercy of 
obligation’ (rahmah al-wujub). The conception is based on another 
Qoranic verse: ‘Your Lord has written upon Himself Mercy’ (VI, 
12). This is the kind of Mercy exercised with discrimination, i.e., in 
accordance with what each person actually has done. Ontologically 
speaking, it is Mercy exercised in accordance with the ‘prepared- 
ness’ of each individual being. 

There are, therefore, two different kinds of Mercy ( rahmatan ); 



Sufism and Taoism 

and the ‘Merciful’ is, accordingly, given two meanings. These two 
senses are differentiated in Arabic by two different Names: the first 
is al- Rahman and the second is al-Rahim. The Rahman is the 
Merciful in the sense of the One who exercises the ‘Mercy of 
gratuitous gift’, while the Rahim is the Merciful in the sense of the 
One who exercises the ‘Mercy of obligation’." 

Since, however, the act of Mercy of the second category is but a 
special case of the first (which consists in bestowing existence on all 
beings), the Name Rahim is included in the Name Rahman. This 
point is explained by Ibn ‘Arab! in the following way : 12 

(The Mercy is of two kinds:) the ‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’ and the 
4 Mercy of obligation’ corresponding to (the Names) the Rahman and 
Rahim respectively. (God) exercises Mercy as a gratuitous act under 
the Name of the Rahman , while He obligates Himself to (requite with 
Mercy) under the Name of Rahim. 

This kind of ‘obligation’, however, is part of ‘gratuitous gift’, and so 
the Rahim is contained within the Rahman. God ‘has written upon 
Himself Mercy’ in such a way that Mercy of this kind may be 
extended to His servants in reward for the good acts done by them 
individually - those good works which are mentioned in the Qoran. 
This kind of Mercy is an obligation upon God with which He has 
bound Himself toward those servants, and the latter rightfully merit 
this kind of Mercy by their good works. 

Thus the ‘Mercy of obligation’ would seem to indicate that each 
person merits this kind of Mercy by whatever good work he has 
done. For Ibn ‘Arabi, this is merely a superficial understanding of 
the matter. In the eyes of those who know the truth, he who really 
does a good work is not man; the real agent is God Himself. 

He who is in this state (i.e., whoever is fully entitled to the ‘ Mercy of 
obligation’) knows within himself who is the real agent (of the good 
works which he does). Good works are distributed among the eight 
bodily members of man. And God has definitely declared that He is 
the He-ness (i.e., the inmost reality) of each of these bodily members. 
From this point of view, the real agent cannot be other than God; 
what belongs to man is only the outward form. (When we say that) 
the Divine He-ness itself is inherent in man, (what is meant thereby is 
that) it inheres in nothing other than one of His Names (i.e., man as a 
concrete form of one of the Divine Names, not in man as a physical 
being.) 13 

As regards the ‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’, the most important point 
to remember is that it covers all without exception. Quite naturally, 
then, the Divine Names themselves are objects of this kind of 

God has put the ‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’ above all restrictions when 
He has declared: ‘My Mercy covers everything’ (VII, 156). So it 

Ontological Mercy 

covers even the Divine Names, i.e., the realities of all relative deter- 
minations (of the Divine Essence). God has shown ‘Mercy of gratu- 
itous gift’ to the Names by (the very act of bestowing existence to) us 
(i.e., the world). Thus we (the world) are the result of the ‘Mercy of 
gratuitous gift’ exercised upon the Divine Names, i.e., the relations 
pertaining to the Lordship (i.e., the various relations which arise 
because of the Absolute being the ‘Lord’). 14 

This universal, unconditional, and indiscriminating nature of the 
‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’ cannot but affect gravely that part of Ibn 
‘Arabi’s ontology which concerns the value of things. His position 
on this problem may succinctly be described by the phrase ‘Beyond 
Good and Evil’. 

As we have seen, the Mercy in this sense is nothing but bestowing 
upon everything existence qua existence. And this is done by the 
Absolute’s manifesting itself in the creaturely forms. This ontologi- 
cal act has in itself nothing to do with moral judgments. In other 
words, it does not matter essentially whether a thing as an object of 
the Mercy be good ( khayr ) or bad ( sharr ). Things assume these and 
other evaluational properties only after having been given existence 
by the act of the universal Mercy. The actual appearance of good- 
ness, badness, etc., is the result of the activity of the ‘Mercy of 
obligation’, for a thing’s assuming properties of this kind is due to 
the nature of the thing itself. 

The ‘ Mercy of gratuitous gift’ is bestowal of existence. It concerns 
existence qua existence; it does not concern existence being good or 
bad. This is one of the major theses of Ibn ‘Arabi. Briefly stated, 
everything is a self-manifestation of the Absolute; the Mercy 
extends in this sense to all, and all are on the ‘straight way’ ( sira( 
mustaqim ); and there is no distinction at this stage between good 
and evil. 

Verily God's is the straight Way; the Way is there, exposed to sight 
everywhere. Its reality is inherent in great things and small, in those 
who are ignorant of the truth as well as in those who know it well. This 
is why it is said that His Mercy covers everything, whether it be vile 
and contemptible or grand and stately. 

Thus (it is said in the Qoran:) ‘There is not even one single animal on 
earth but that He seizes its forelock. Verily my Lord is on the straight 
Way’. (XI, 56). It is clear, then, that everybody walking on the earth 
is on the straight Way of the Lord. From this point of view nobody is 
of ‘those upon whom is God’s wrath' (I, 7) nor of ‘those who go 
astray’ (ibid.). Both ‘wrath’ and ‘going astray’ come into being only 
secondarily. Everything goes ultimately back to the Mercy which is 
universal and which precedes (the appearance of all secondary 
distinctions). 15 


Sufism and Taoism 

God himself seizes the forelock of every animal and leads it along 
the straight Way. This means that everything qua being is good as it 
is, and is, as we have seen earlier, actually approved by God. 

As all things go in this manner along the straight Way of God 
under His own guidance, each shows its own characteristic feature, 
i.e., each goes on doing individually various acts which are peculiar 
to it. These acts are each a concrete manifestation of the particular 
Name which acts as the personal Lord of each being. In other words, 
everything, after having been put on the straight Way by the 
ontological activity of the Mercy , begins to show secondarily its own 
characteristic traits in accordance with the individual peculiarity 
(khu$u$iyah) of the Name of which it happens to be an embodiment. 

Everything except the Absolute is (what is described by the Goran 
as) an animal walking on the earth. It is called ‘animal because it is 
possessed of a spirit ( ruh ). 16 

But there is nothing that ‘walks around’ by itself. Everything that 
‘walks around’ does so only secondarily, following the movement of 
(its own Lord) who is the one who really walks along the straight 
Way. But the Way, on its part, cannot be a way unless there be people 
who walk upon it. 17 

Thus the statement is fundamentally right that everything is primar- 
ily, i.e., qua being, neither good nor bad. However, since existence 
is a direct manifestation of the essential Mercy of the Absolute, 
everything in that sense must be said to be essentially ‘good’ 
( tayyib ). Anything whatsoever is good in its existence. Only when 
man, from his subjective and relative point of view, begins to like 
and dislike things, does the distinction between good and bad come 
into being. For Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are a sheer matter of 
relative viewpoints. He explains this in the following way : 18 

Concerning the ‘badness’ of garlic, the Prophet once observed: ‘It is a 
plant whose scent I dislike’ . He did not say, ‘I dislike garlic , because 
the thing itself is not to be disliked; what is liable to be disliked is only 
what appears from the thing. 

Thus displeasure arises either because of a habit, namely, because a 
thing does not suit one’s nature or purpose, or because of some 
regulation in the Law, or because of the thing falling short of the 
desired perfection. There can be no other cause than those which I 
have just enumerated. 

And as the things of the world are divided into categories: good (i.e., 
agreeable) and bad (i.e., disagreeable), the Prophet (Muhammad) 
was made to be of such a nature that he liked the good and disliked 
the bad. 

The Prophet also says in describing the angels that they are annoyed 
by the offensive odors, (which the human beings exhale) because of 
the natural putrefaction peculiar to the elemental constitution of 


Ontological Mercy 

man. Man has been ‘created of clay of black mud wrought into shape’ 
(XV, 26), so he emits a repulsive odor. The angels dislike it by nature. 
The dung-beetle finds repulsive the scent of rose, which, in reality, is 
a sweet fragrance. For the dung-beetle, rose does not emit a sweet 
smell. Likewise, a man who is like a dung-beetle in his nature and 
inner constitution, finds truth repulsive and is pleased with falsehood. 
To this refer God’s words: ‘And those who believe in falsehood and 
disbelieve in God’ (XXIX, 52). And God describes them as people at 
a loss when He says: ‘they it is who are the losers’ (ibid.), meaning 
thereby that these are the people who lose themselves. For they do 
not discern good from bad, and, therefore, totally lack discernment. 

As to the Apostle of God (Muhammad), love was inspired into his 
heart for the good concerning everything. And, properly speaking, 
everything without exception is (essentially) good. 

However, is it at all imaginable that there be in the world (a man of) 
such an inner constitution that he would find in everything only the 
good and nothing bad? I should say, ‘No, that is impossible.’ Because 
we find the (opposition between good and bad) even in the very 
Ground from which the world arises, I mean, the Absolute. We know 
that the Absolute (as God) likes and dislikes. And the bad is nothing 
other than what one dislikes, while the good is nothing other than 
what one likes. And the world has been created in the image of the 
Absolute (i.e., having likes and dislikes), and man has been created in 
the image of these two (i.e., the Absolute and the world). 

Thus it is natural that no man should be (of such a) constitution that 
he would perceive exclusively one aspect (i.e., either the good or bad 
aspect) of everything. But there does not exist a (man of such a) 
constitution that he discerns a good element in anything bad, being 
well aware that what is bad is bad simply because of (the subjective 
impression caused by) the taste, and that it is (essentially) good if 
considered apart from the (subjective impression caused by the) 
taste. In the case of such a man, the perception of the good may be so 
overwhelming as to make him forget completely the perception of 
the bad. This is quite possible. But it is impossible to make the bad 
disappear completely from the world, i.e., from the realm of Being. 

The Mercy of God covers both good and bad. Anything bad consid- 
ers itself good, and what is good (for others) looks bad to it. There is 
nothing good in the world but that it turns into something bad from a 
certain point of view and for a certain constitution, and likewise, 

Viewed from such a height, even the good and bad in the religious 
sense, i.e., ‘obedience’ ( (a‘ah ) and ‘disobedience’ (ma‘$iyah), turn 
out ultimately to be two aspects of one and the same thing. Ibn 
‘Arabi explains this by the symbolic meaning contained in the story 
of Moses throwing down his staff in the presence of Pharaoh . 19 

‘Then he threw down his staff (XXVI, 32). The staff (‘ asd ) symbol- 
izes something (i.e., the spirit or nature of Pharaoh) with which 




Sufism and Taoism 

Pharaoh disobeyed (‘asa) Moses in his haughtiness and refused to 
respond to the call of Moses. ‘And, lo, it turned into a serpent 
manifest’ (ibid.), that is, the staff was changed into an apparent snake 
(hayyah). Thus (the Qoranic verse here quoted means that) the 
disobedience, which was a bad thing, transformed itself into obedi- 
ence, which was a good thing. 

In competing with the magicians of the Egyptian court in the pres- 
ence of Pharaoh, Moses throws down on the floor the staff in his 
hand. The staff - in Arabic, ‘asa - is immediately associated in the 
mind of Ibn ‘Arabi with the verb ‘asa (meaning ‘to rebel’ ‘to dis- 
obey’) by phonetic association, and the staff becomes a symbol of 
‘disobedience’. The staff becomes the symbol of the fact that 
Pharaoh disobeyed Moses, and did not respond to the latter’s call. 

The staff, thrown down, changes at once into a serpent. The 
Arabic word for ‘serpent’ or ‘snake’ , hayyah , arouses in Ibn ‘ Arabi’s 
mind, again by phonetic association, the word hayah, i.e., ‘life’. 
‘Life’ in this particular context, is the spiritual life resulting from 
man’s getting into immediate touch with the depth structure of 
Reality. And, for Ibn ‘Arabi, it means ‘obedience’ to God. 

Thus the feat enacted by Moses depicts symbolically the naturally 
disobedient soul of Pharaoh being transformed into an obedient, 
docile soul. Not that there are two different souls: one obedient, 
another disobedient. As al-Qashanl remarks , 20 soul itself is ‘one and 
single reality’, except that it becomes good or bad according to 
contexts. One and the same reality shows two different aspects, and 
appears in two different modes. 

The staff of Moses per se remains the same, but it appears some- 
times as a staff, sometimes as a serpent according to particular 
situations, i.e., according to the point of view from which one looks 
at it. Likewise, whatever Pharaoh may do, the act itself is neither 
good nor bad. The only thing that changes are its properties. The 
same act of Pharaoh becomes sometimes obedience, sometimes 

All this happens in accordance with God’s words: ‘God will change 
their evil deeds into good deeds’ (XXV, 70), that is to say, in so far as 
concerns their qualifications (and not the essences themselves of 
their deeds). Thus, in this case, different qualifications appeared as 
distinctive realities within one single substance. That is to say, one 
single substance appeared as a staff and as a snake or, (as the Qoran 
says) ‘a serpent manifest.’ As a snake, it swallowed up all the other 
snakes, while as a staff, it swallowed up all the staffs. 21 

Ibn ‘Arabi develops the same thought from a properly theological 
point of view, as the problem of Divine Will ( mashVah ). 

All events that occur in this world, all actions that are done, are, 

Ontological Mercy 

without even a single exception, due to Divine Will. In this sense, 
there can be no distinction between good and bad, or right and 
wrong. Every phenomenon, as it actually is, is a direct effect of the 
Will of God. Every event occurs as it actually does because it is so 
willed by God. 

This standpoint is totally different from that of the Sacred Law 
which approves of this and disapproves of that. When a ‘bad’ man 
does something ‘evil’ , his act obviously goes against the Sacred Law, 
but, according to Ibn ‘Arabi it never goes against Divine Will. For it 
is absolutely impossible that something should occur against the 
Will of God. Here is what Ibn ‘Arabi, says about this problem : 22 

Every decree which is carried out now in the world (i.e., anything that 
actually occurs in the world as a concrete phenomenon) is a decree of 
God, even if it violates the particular kind of decree which has been 
established under the name of a Sacred Law. For in reality only when 
a decree is truly God’s decree, is it actually carried out. Everything 
that occurs in the world occurs solely in accordance with what is 
decreed by the Will of God, not in accordance with the decree of an 
established Sacred Law, although, to be sure, the very establishment 
of a Sacred Law is itself due to Divine Will. Besides, precisely 
because it is willed by God, establishment of the Sacred Law is 
actualized. However, Divine Will in this case concerns only the 
establishment of the Law; it does not concern the practice of what is 
enjoined by the Law. 

Thus the Will has a supreme authority. And this is why Abu Talib 
(al-Makki) regarded it as the ‘Throne of the Divine Essence’, 
because the Will demands for itself that the decrees should be carried 

Such being the case, nothing occurs in this world apart from the Will, 
nor is anything removed from the sphere of Being except by the Will. 
And whenever the Divine Command 23 is violated in this world by 
what is called ‘disobedience’ (or ‘sin’), it is the matter of the ‘ mediate’ 
Command, not the ‘creational’ Command. Nobody, whatever he 
may do, can ever act against God in so far as the Command of the Will 
(i.e., the creational Command) is concerned. Disobedience occurs 
only in regard to the ‘mediate’ Command. 

The Will of God concerns only takwin , i.e., ‘bringing into existence’ , 
or ‘creation’ . Within the sphere of human acts, for instance, the Will 
concerns the coming into existence of a certain act. The Will is not 
directly concerned with the question as to who happens to be the 
individual person through whom the act occurs. All acts occur 
necessarily through individual persons. Every individual, in this 
sense, is a ‘responsible’ (mukallaf) person, that is, a person who 
bears a number of moral responsibilities within the boundaries of 
the system of a Sacred Law. And every human act becomes ‘good’ 
or ‘bad’ through this very process of personal ‘mediation’. 


Sufism and Taoism 

In reality the Command of the Will is directed exclusively toward the 
bringing into existence of an act itself; it is not a matter of concern to 
the Will ‘who’ actually manifests the act. So it is absolutely impossible 
that the act should not occur. But in regard to the particular locus (in 
which it actually occurs), the (same) act is called sometimes ‘dis- 
obedience’ to the Divine Command (namely, when the particular 
person who does it happens to be prohibited to do it by the Sacred 
Law of his community), and sometimes ‘obedience’ (namely, when 
the person happens to belong to a community whose Sacred Law 
enjoins the act). And (the same act) is followed by blame or praise 

The situation being just as we have shown, all creatures are destined 
ultimately to reach happiness in spite of the difference in kind that 
exists among them. God Himself expresses this fact when He states 
that His Mercy covers everything and that the Mercy forestalls 
Divine Wrath. ‘Forestall’ means to get ahead of something. Thus, as 
soon as a particular person who has already been given a (negative) 
judgment by that which (essentially) comes afterward (i.e., Wrath) 
overtakes that which goes ahead of it (i.e., Mercy), the latter pro- 
nounces a (new) judgment upon him, so that Mercy gets hold of him. 
Such a (miraculous) thing can actually occur because there is abso- 
lutely nothing that can ever forestall it (i.e., Mercy). 

This is what is meant by the dictum: ‘God’s Mercy forestalls His 
Wrath’, because of the decisive influence Mercy exercises upon 
whatever reaches it, for it stands at the ultimate goal (awaiting 
everything), and everything is running toward the goal. Everything 
necessarily attains to the ultimate goal. So everything necessarily 
obtains Mercy and leaves Wrath . 24 

The preceding description of the Mercy clearly suggests that Ibn 
‘ Arabi is considering the phenomenon of the universal Mercy from 
two different points of view at one time. The basic dictum: ‘the 
Mercy of God runs through all beings’ , 25 means ontologically that 
everything existent is existent by the Divine act of the bestowal of 
existence. The dictum also means that everything is under Divine 
Mercy, and that everything, therefore, is essentially blessed and is in 

Everything which is remembered by Mercy is happy and blessed. But 
there is nothing that has not been remembered by Mercy. And 
Mercy’s remembering things is exactly the same as its bringing them 
into existence. Thus everything existent is affected by Mercy. 

Do not, o my friend, lose sight of what I have told you under the 
influence of your vision of the people of misery and your belief in the 
torments of the Hereafter which are never to be slackened once men 
are put into them. Know before everything else that Mercy is primar- 
ily exercised in bringing everything into existence, so that even the 
torments of Hell themselves have been brought into existence by 
Mercy that has been directed toward them . 26 


Ontological Mercy 

Then, in the passage which immediately follows what we have just 
quoted, Ibn ‘Arab! distinguishes two different kinds of effect pro- 
duced by the Mercy: (1) an ontological effect produced directly by 
its Essence, and (2) an effect produced in accordance with man’s 
asking. This distinction corresponds to what we have already discus- 
sed in terms of the distinction between the ‘Mercy of gratuitous gift’ 
and the ‘Mercy of obligation’. Only he considers it this time from a 
somewhat different perspective. 

Mercy in its effect has two different aspects. The first concerns an 
effect it produces in accordance with essential requirement of itself. 

It consists in that Mercy brings into existence every individual 
essence (‘ ayn , i.e., archetype). In doing this, it does not pay any 
attention to purpose or non-purpose, suitability or non-suitability, 
for the object of Mercy is the essence of every existent thing before 
the latter actually exists, that is, while it is still in the state of a 
permanent archetype. 

So (for instance,) Mercy discerns the Absolute as ‘created’ in the 
various religions, (even before its actual existence) as one of the 
permanent archetypes (i.e., as a potential existent), and spontane- 
ously shows Mercy upon it by bringing it into actual existence. This is 
the reason why I assert that the Absolute as ‘created’ in the various 
religions constitutes the first object of Mercy immediately after the 
Mercy has exercised Mercy upon itself by concerning itself with the 
existentiation of all existents. 

The second kind of effect is that induced by ‘asking’ (on the part of 
creatures). But (there are two kinds of ‘asking’). Those who are 
veiled (from the truth) ask the Absolute to show Mercy upon them, 
each representing the Absolute in (the particular form provided by) 
his own religion. The people of ‘unveiling’, on the contrary, ask the 
Mercy of God to reside in them. They ask for Mercy in the Name 
Allah, saying, "O Allah, show Mercy upon us!’ And (the Absolute, in 
response) shows Mercy upon them only by making Mercy reside in 
them. And Mercy (thus residing in these sages) produces its positive 
effect in them (i.e., they themselves become the possessors of the 
Mercy and begin to act as ‘merciful’ ones ). 27 

We must try to grasp exactly what is meant by Ibn ‘Arabi in this 
important but obscure passage. The first of the two aspects of the 
effect of Mercy here described is not difficult to understand, 
because it concerns the ontological activity of Mercy which we have 
already discussed earlier in terms of the Mercy of the rahman type. 
It refers to one of the most fundamental theses of Ibn ‘Arabi, that 
beings obtain their existence by the Essence of the Absolute mani- 
festing itself in the particular form of each one of them in accord- 
ance with the capacity determined in eternity for each thing. 

Ibn ‘Arab! here leaves the plane of general theoretical considera- 
tions and narrows down his observation to a very particular case; 



Sufism and Taoism 

namely, the problem of the relation between the believer and the 
object of his belief within the boundaries of the traditional religion 
of his community. The effect of Mercy, he argues, appears first in 
Mercy exercising an ontological (i.e., existentiating) Mercy upon its 
own self. Following this, Mercy bestows existence upon the Abso- 
lute as ‘created’ in various religions. 

It goes without saying that the believers themselves, in so far as 
they are ‘beings’, are originally permanent archetypes, and as such 
must necessarily be objects of the ontological Mercy. But the 
objects of belief of these believers, i.e., their gods, are also originally 
permanent archetypes which are included within the archetypes of 
the believers. So it is natural that they, too, should be affected by the 
ontological Mercy. In other words, the very same activity of the 
Mercy, which brings into existence the believers as so many objects 
of Mercy, brings into existence also the ‘created’ Absolute within 
the believers themselves. 

In contrast to this activity of the ontological Mercy, the second 
aspect concerns the effect of the Mercy which is produced in accor- 
dance with what an individual person asks from his Lord, each being 
motivated by a personal purpose. This aspect of Mercy varies in 
accordance with the nature of what is asked by individual ‘seekers’ . 

Ibn ‘Arab! divides the ‘seekers’ ( talibun ) of Mercy into two 
classes: (1) the ‘veiled’ people, and (2) the people of ‘unveiling’. 
Each one of the first class implores his Lord saying, ‘Have mercy 
upon me!’ ‘Give me this, or give me that!’ This, in Ibn ‘ Arabi’s view, 
is nothing but a silly act which arises from the ignorance of the truth. 
The Mercy of God does not produce any effect except on the basis 
of what has been eternally determined in the form of permanent 
archetypes. However much they may implore God, the permanent 
archetypes of himself and of others can never be altered. 

The people of the second class, on the contrary, ask for something 
extraordinary. First of all, they do not direct their supplication to 
any individual Lord. They address themselves to Allah as the point 
of comprehensive unification of all the Names. They cry out, ‘O 
Allah, have mercy upon us!’ This should not be taken literally as if 
they implored God to show mercy to them in the manner in which a 
‘merciful’ man shows mercy to other human beings. What they are 
asking for is that God should make them subjectively conscious of 
the universal Mercy which is implied in the Name Allah. Their wish 
is to go beyond the passive state of being objects of the Mercy 
{marhum) and to put themselves in the position of the rahim , i.e., 
one who shows mercy, and thereby have the consciousness of all the 
Names being, so to speak, their own attributes. 

When this wish is really fulfilled, Mercy begins to show its positive 
effect within these people as their own personal attributes. And 

Ontological Mercy 

each one of them turns from the state of marhum to that of rahim. 
Mercy works in this way according to Ibn ‘Arabi because the real 
effect of a property begins to appear positively only when the 
non-material content ( ma‘na ) of it comes to reside in a particular 

Thus it (i.e., the non-material essence of Mercy residing in a particu- 
lar locus) functions as the rahim in the real sense of the word. God 
shows Mercy to His servants about whom He is concerned only 
through Mercy, and when this Mercy becomes established in them 
(as their subjective state), they experience by ‘immediate tasting’ the 
positive effect of Mercy as their own property. For he whom Mercy 
remembers (in this sense) is himself a subject of Mercy. His state then 
(will be more properly expressed by) a name descriptive of an agent 
(rather than a name descriptive of the passive state, marhum), that is, 
the ‘merciful’ or rahim. 2 * 

Such a man, Ibn ‘Arab! says, is conscious within himself of Mercy 
being active as his own subjective state. He is no longer an ‘object’ 
of Mercy, one to whom Mercy is shown; he is rather a ‘subject’ of 
Mercy, one who exercises it toward other beings. He is now a man 
worthy to be called ‘merciful’. The grave consequence of this per- 
sonal transformation through the appropriation of Mercy will be 
studied later when we deal with the problem of the Perfect Man. 

In what precedes, we have been following Ibn ‘Arab! as he develops 
his thought on the Divine Name ‘Merciful’ ( rahman ), and we have 
tried to clarify the structure of Mercy (rahmah) which is the concep- 
tual core of this Name. 

The next problem to consider is: How does Mercy issue forth 
from the Absolute? Ibn ‘Arab! explains his view on this problem 
using a very bold and colorful image of ‘breathing out’. 

It is a matter of common experience that, when we hold our 
breath for some time, the air compressed in the chest makes us feel 
unbearable pain. And when the utmost limit is reached, and we 
cannot hold it any longer, the air that has been held inside bursts out 
all at once. It is a natural phenomenon that the breath compressed 
in the breast seeks forcibly for an outlet, and finally explodes and 
gushes forth with a violent outburst. Just as air bursts forth from the 
chest of man, the compressed existence within the depths of 
the Absolute, taking the form of Mercy, gushes forth from the 
Absolute. This he calls the ‘breath of the Merciful’ ( al-nafas 
al-rahmaniy ). 29 

The state preceding the bursting forth of the breath of Mercy is 
described by Ibn ‘Arab! by an equally expressive word karb. The 
word is derived from a root meaning ‘to overload’ or ‘to fill up’ , and 
is used to designate the state in which the stomach, for instance, is 



Sufism and Taoism 

surfeited. It is a state of extreme tension, just short of explosion, 
caused by an excessive amount of things accumulated inside. 

Because of this surfeit (i.e., in order to relieve itself from the excess of 
inner tension) the Absolute breathes out. The breath is attributed to 
the Merciful (and called the ‘breath of the Merciful’) because the 
(Absolute under the Name of) Merciful shows Mercy by means of 
this breath toward the Divine Relations (i.e., the Names) and 
responds to their demand that the forms of the world be brought into 
existence . 30 

The Mercy, as we have seen above, means bestowal of existence. So 
the ‘breathing out’ of the breath of the Merciful is a symbolic 
expression for the manifestation of Being, or the Divine act of 
bringing into existence the things of the world. In the imagery 
peculiar to Ibn ‘Arab!, this phenomenon may also be described as 
the Divine Names bursting out into the real world of existence. The 
Divine Names, in this imagery, are originally in the state of intense 
compression within the Absolute. And at the extreme limit of 
interior compression, the Names ‘burst out’ from the bosom of the 
Absolute. Ibn ‘Arab! depicts in this vividly pictorial way the 
ontological process by which the Divine Names become actualized 
in the forms of the world. This is the birth of the world as the whole 
of outwardly existent beings. The process itself is explained in more 
plain terms by Bali Efendi in the following manner . 31 

The Names, previous to their existence in the outer world, exist 
hidden in the Essence of the Absolute, all of them seeking an outlet 
toward the world of external existence. The state is comparable to the 
case in which a man holds his breath within himself. The breath, held 
within, seeks an outlet toward the outside, and this causes in the man 
a painful sensation of extreme compression. Only when he breathes 
out does this compression cease . . . Just as the man is tormented by 
the compression if he does not breathe out, so the Absolute would 
feel the pain of compression if it did not bring into existence the world 
in response to the demand of the Names. 

To this Bali Efendi adds the remark that this phenomenon of Divine 
‘breathing’ ( tanaffus ) is the same as God’s uttering the word ‘Be!’ 
(kun) to the world. ‘He breathed out’ means ‘He sent out what was 
in His Interior to the Exterior by means of the word Be. Thus He 
Himself, after having been in the Interior, has come to exist in the 
Exterior 5 . 

What is important to observe is that, in Ibn ‘ArabFs world-view, 
this ‘breathing out’ of Mercy is not something that took place, once 
for all, sometime in the past. On the contrary, the process of the 
‘compressed breath’, i.e., the Names contained in the Absolute, 
bursting out in virtue of its own pressure toward the outside, is going 

Ontological Mercy 

on continuously without intermission. And it is this continuous 
process that maintains the present world in subsistence. To use the 
Aristotelian terminology, things are constantly turning from the 
state of potentiality to that of actuality. It is a constant and everlast- 
ing process of a universal overflow of the Being of the Absolute into 
Being of the creatures. Thus the real and absolute Being ( al-wujud 
al-haqiqiy) goes on transforming itself without a moment’s rest into 
the relative Being {al-wujud al-idafiy). And this ontological trans- 
formation, which Ibn ‘Arab! sometimes calls ‘emanation’ ( fayd ), is, 
in his view, a natural and necessary movement of Being caused by 
the inner pressure of the ontological potentiality kept within the 
Absolute. Without this constant transformation, i.e., ‘breathing 
out’, the Being would be compressed within beyond its extreme 
limit, and the Essence of the Absolute would be in structurally the 
same situation as when we suffer an unbearable pain by holding our 

The phenomenon of the ‘breath of the Merciful’ has been inter- 
preted in the preceding pages in terms of the Divine Names. It may 
also be understood in terms of the Lordship ( rububiyah ), for, as we 
have seen, ‘Lord’ is a particularized form of the Absolute on the 
level of the Divine Names. The Absolute in its absoluteness is 
completely ‘independent’; it does not need anything, it does not 
seek anything outside itself. But the Absolute qua Lord needs 
objects of its Lordship; it does not subsist without marbub. 

But marbub (‘one who is lorded over’) is nothing other than the 
world in existence. Thus the Lord must bring into existence the 
things of the world. The same thing can be expressed in religious 
terms by saying that to the Absolute qua Lord essentially belongs 
solicitude for his servants. 

In the plane of Being where it is split into various relations opposed to 
each other , 32 God describes Himself in a (famous) Tradition as 
having ‘solicitude {shafaqah) for His servants’. 

The very first thing which (the Absolute) breathed out by its ‘breath 
of Mercy’ was Lordship. And this was actualized by the bringing into 
existence of the world, because the world was what was essentially 
required by Lordship and all (the other) Divine Names. From this 
point of view it is evident that Mercy covers everything . 33 

Thus the ‘breath of the Merciful’ is the principle of Being or the 
ground of Being extending over both the world of material things 
and the world of spiritual beings. In this ontological capacity, the 
‘breath of the Merciful’ is regarded by Ibn ‘Arab! as Nature 
{( abVah ). 

Viewed from this perspective, the ‘breath’ is a Substance (jawhar , 
in the Aristotelian sense of Prime Matter) in which all the forms of 



Sufism and Taoism 

Being, both material and spiritual, are manifested. In this sense, 
Nature necessarily precedes any form which becomes manifest in it. 

Nature precedes all that are born out of it with definite forms. But in 
reality, Nature is no other than the ‘breath of the Merciful’. All the 
forms of the world become manifest in the latter, ranging from the 
highest forms to the lowest, in virtue of the spreading of the ‘breath’ 
through the material substance in the world of physical bodies in 
particular. The ‘breath’ spreads also through the Being of the spirits 
of a luminous nature and the attributes. But that is another kind of 
the spreading of the ‘breath ’. 34 

According to this passage, the Divine ‘breath’ pervades the material 
substance, i.e., the Prime Matter ( hayiila ), which is receptive of the 
physical forms, and it brings into existence the physical bodies in 
the material world. The ‘breath’ pervades, at the same time, the 
spiritual substances bringing into existence the spirits of the Light- 
nature, i.e., immaterial things by spreading through the spiritual 
Nature which is another kind of Prime Matter. It also spreads 
through the accidental Nature and thereby brings into being various 
accidents which exist as inherent attributes of substances. 

To consider bestowal of existence by the Absolute as the ‘breath’ 
of the Merciful is, for Ibn ‘Arab!, by no means a mere metaphor 
which has come to his mind haphazardly. It is an essential metaphor. 
The ontological phenomenon, in his view, coincides in every im- 
portant respect with the physiological phenomenon of breathing. 
All the basic attributes which characterize the human act of breath- 
ing apply analogically to the ‘breath’ of God. We shall in what 
follows consider this point, basing ourselves on Ibn ‘Arabfs own 
description . 35 

The Absolute attributes to itself the ‘breath of the Merciful’. Now 
whenever anything is qualified by an attribute, all the qualities that 
naturally follow that attribute must necessarily be attributed to that 
thing. (In our particular case), you know well what qualities naturally 
follow the'attribute of breathing in an animal that breathes . 36 This is 
why the Divine breath receives the forms of the world. Thus the 
Divine breath acts as the Prime Matter in relation to the forms of the 
world. And (the Divine breath in this capacity) is precisely what we 
call Nature. 

Accordingly, the four elements, everything that has been generated 
from the elements, the higher spiritual beings, and the spirits of 
seven Heavens, all these are found to be ‘forms’ of Nature . 37 

Thus the four elements are forms (i.e., specific determinations) of 
Nature. And those beings above the elements, namely, the ‘higher 
spirits’ that are (ranged in a hierarchical order down to a level just) 
above the seven Heavens - they are forms of Nature. And those 

Ontological Mercy 

being born of the elements are also forms of Nature. (By ‘those that 
are born of the elements’) I mean the spheres of the seven Heavens 
and the spirits (governing their movements) ; they are of an elemental 
nature, because they are made of, and born of, the vapor 38 of the 

Each one of the angels born in any of the seven Heavens is likewise of 
the elements. Thus all the heavenly angels are elemental. Those 
(angels) above the heavenly spheres (are not elemental, but they 
nonetheless) belong to Nature. And this is the reason why God 
described the angels as mutually rivaling. This may be explained by 
the fact that Nature itself tends by essence to be split into opposed 
poles. And the essential opposition among the Divine Names, i.e., 
the Divine Relations, has been caused only by the ‘breath of the 
Merciful’ . Do you not see how even in the Divine Essence which is in 
itself completely free from such a property (i.e., polarization) there 
appears (at the level of the Divine Names) the definite property of 
essential independence ? 39 Thus the world has been produced in the 
image of its creator which is (not the Essence but) the ‘breath of the 
Merciful ’ 40 . . . He 41 who wants to know (the nature of) the Divine 
breath must try to know the world, for (as the Prophet said) ‘he who 
knows himself knows his Lord’ who manifests Himself in him. That is 
to say, the world makes its appearance in the ‘breath of the Merciful’ 
by which God breathes out from the Divine Names the inner com- 
pression that has been caused by the non-manifestation of their 
effects. (God relieves the Names of the pain of their inner compres- 
sion by letting them manifest their effects.) At the same time, God 
thereby shows Mercy toward Himself, that is, by what He brings into 
existence in the ‘breath ’. 42 Thus the first effect shown by the Divine 
‘breath’ appears in God Himself (by the manifestation of His 
Names). Then, following that stage, the process goes on stage by 
stage by the ‘breathing out’ of all the Divine Names until it reaches 
the last stage of Being (i.e., the world). 

Ibn ‘Arabi concludes with a short poem, the first verse of which 
runs: ‘Thus everything is contained in the bosom of the Breath, just 
as the bright light of day is in the very darkness before dawn’. The 
whole world is still completely shrouded in darkness. But it is not 
the darkness of midnight, for the light of dawn is already potentially 
there, ready to appear at any moment. Commenting on this verse, 
Affifi writes : 43 The ‘breath’ symbolizes the material substance ( al - 
jawhar al-hayularii) in which the forms of all beings become mani- 
fested. In itself, it is utter darkness, i.e., utterly unknowable, but 
seen from the viewpoint of manifestation, all the forms of the 
universe are faintly observable in the midst of the darkness. 

Mercy ( rahmah ) is unquestionably one of the key-concepts which 
characterize in a definite way the structure of Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s thought. 
Probably a little less important than Mercy, but very close to it in 


Sufism and Taoism 

content is another key-concept, Love (mahabbah). The Divine 
Love is, after all, the same thing as Mercy, but looked at from a 
somewhat different angle. It is, theologically speaking, the funda- 
mental motive of the creation of the world by God, and in terms of 
the ontology peculiar to Ibn ‘Arab!, it is the driving force of the 
self-manifestation of the Absolute. Before we close the present 
chapter, we shall analyze this concept and discuss the place it 
occupies in the philosophical system of Ibn ‘Arabl. 

There is a particular reason why the concept of Love plays such an 
important role in Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought. Its importance is due to the 
existence of an explicit statement put in the mouth of God Himself 
in a famous Tradition which may be considered the starting-point, 
the basis, and the very gist of his philosophy: ‘I was a hidden 
treasure, and I desired {ahbabtu, ‘loved’) to be known. Accordingly 
I created the creatures and thereby made Myself known to them. 
Any they did come to know Me’. 

As this Tradition tells us with utmost clarity, Love ( hubb ) is the 
principle which moved the Absolute toward the creation of the 
world. It is, in this sense, the ‘secret of creation’ (sirr al-khalq ) or 
‘cause of creation’ {‘illah al-khalq). If we are to express the thought 
in terms more characteristic of Ibn ‘ Arabi, we might say that Love is 
something because of which the Absolute steps out of the state of 
abysmal Darkness and begins to manifest itself in the forms of all 

For Ibn ‘Arabi, speaking more generally, ‘love’ is the principle of 
all movement ( harakah ). All movements that actually occur in the 
world (e.g., when a man does something) are due to the driving 
force of ‘love’. In explaining events that take place in and around 
ourselves, our attention tends to be drawn toward various causes 44 
other than ‘love’. We usually say, for example, that the ‘cause’ of 
such-and-such an action we do is such-and-such a thing (e.g., fear, 
anger, joy, etc.). In doing so, we are overlooking the real cause, i.e., 
the most basic cause of all causes. In the eyes of those who know the 
truth, all phenomena of movement, on all levels of Being, are 
caused by ‘love’. If it were not for the activity of ‘love’, everything 
would remain in the state of eternal rest, i.e., non-movement. And 
non-movement ( sukun ) means nothing other than non-existence 
(‘ adam ). 45 

From this point of view, the fact that the world has come out of 
the state of non-existence into the state of existence is a grand-scale 
ontological ‘ movement’ , and this movement has been caused by the 
Divine Love. Ibn ‘Arabi expresses this conception in the following 
way : 46 

The most basic and primary movement was the movement of the 

world from the state of non-existence (i.e., the archetypal state), in 

Ontological Mercy 


which it had been reposing, into the state of existence. This is the 
reason why it is said that the reality of existence is a movement from 
the state of repose. And the movement which is coming into exist- 
ence of the world is a movement of Love. This is clearly indicated by 
the Apostle when he says (conveying God’s own words): ‘I was a 
hidden treasure, and I loved to be known’. If it were not for this love, 
the world would never have appeared in this concrete existence. In 
this sense, the movement of the world toward existence was a move- 
ment of Love which brought it into existence. . . . 

And the world, on its part, loves to witness itself in the existence as it 
used to witness itself in the state of archetypal repose. Thus, from 
whichever side one considers it, the movement of the world from the 
state of the archetypal non-existence toward concrete existence was a 
movement of Love, both from the side of the Absolute and from the 
side of the world itself. 

And all this is ultimately due to the Love of the Absolute for being 
‘perfect’ in both its Knowledge and Existence. If the Absolute 
remained in isolation in its own original absoluteness, neither its 
Knowledge nor its Existence would have attained perfection. Ibn 
‘Arabi goes on to say : 47 

Perfection ( kamal ) is loved for its own sake. But as for God’s Know- 
ledge of Himself, in so far as He was completely independent of the 
whole world (i.e., in so far as He remained in isolation before the 
creation of the world), it was there (from the beginning in absolute 
perfection). The degree of the Knowledge was to be made perfect 
only by a temporal Knowledge (‘ilm hadithy* which would concern 
the concrete individual objects of the world once these would be 
brought into existence. Thus the form of Perfection is realized (in 
God) by the two kinds of Knowledge, temporal and eternal, and the 
degree of His Knowledge is brought to perfection through these two 
aspects. Correspondingly, the degrees of Being are also perfected (by 
the creation of the world). For Being is of two kinds: eternal ( a parte 
ante) and non-eternal, that is temporal. The ‘eternal’ ( azaliy ) Exis- 
tence is the Existence of the Absolute for itself, while the ‘non- 
eternal’ is the Existence of the Absolute in the forms of the 
archetypal world. This latter kind of Being is called ‘becoming’ 
(huduth) because the Absolute in it (splits itself into multiplicity and) 
appears to one another. The Absolute in this way appears to itself in 
the forms of the world. And this brings Being to perfection. 

And so Ibn ‘Arab! comes to a conclusion in which he connects the 
concept of Love with that of the breath of Mercy. 

Thus you should understand that the movement of the world is born 
of Love for perfection. 

Do you not see how the Absolute breathed out and relieved the 
Divine Names of (the pain of compression) which they had been 
feeling because of the non-appearance of their effects, in an entity 


Sufism and Taoism 

called the world? This happened because the Absolute loves relaxa- 
tion ( rahah ). And relaxation was only to be obtained through the 
existence of the forms high and low. Thus it is patent that movement 
is caused by Love, and that there can be no movement in the world 
but that it is motivated by Love. 


1. Fus., p. 222/177. 

2. p. 222. 

3. Fus., p. 222/177. 

4. p. 222. 

5. Fu<>., PP- 222-223/177. 

6. p. 223. 

7. Fus., p. 223/177. 

8. Fus., P- 224/177 

9. Fus -, P- 227/180. 

10. p. 227 

11. Accordingly, rahmah al-imtinan is sometimes called al-rahmah al-rahmaniyah, 
and rahmah al-wujiib is called al-rahmah al-rahimiyah. 

12. Fus., p. 191/151. 

13. Fus., p. 192/152. 

14. Fus ., p- 193/153. 

15. Fus., PP- 123-124/106. 

16. Why does Ibn ‘Arabi specifically emphasize that everything other than the 
Absolute is ‘possessed of a spirit’ ( dhii ruh)2 Bali Efendi thinks (p. 124) that it is 
because, according to the Qoran, everything is ‘praising God’, and the act of ‘prais- 
ing comes only from a spirit. We may, I think, also understand the phrase ‘possessed 
of a spirit in the sense of ‘possessed of life’. As we shall see in the next chapter, 
everything, in Ibn ‘ArabFs world-view, is ‘alive’. 

17. Fus., p. 124/106. 

18. Fus., pp. 276-278/221. 

19. Fus., pp. 261-262/210. 


Ontological Mercy 

20. p. 261. 

21. Fus., P- 262/210. 

22. Fus., pp- 206-207/165. 

23. ‘Command’ ( amr ) is different from the Will ( mashi’ah ). The latter, as we have 
seen, is absolute, and its decree irrevocable. Disobedience is out of question here. 
The Command is of two kinds: (1) mediate (bi-al-wasi(ah) and (2) creational 
(takwiniy). The second concerns the coming into existence of anything, and is 
identical with the Will. The first, however, is identical with the Sacred Law ( shar ' ), 
and may be disobeyed. 

24. Fus., PP- 207-208/165-166. 

25. Rahmah Allah fi al-akwan sariyah, Fus., P- 225/177. 

26. Fus., P- 225/178. 

27. ibid. 

28. Fus., p. 226/178. 

29. Fus., P- 273/219. 

30. Fus., p- 133/112. 

31. p. 133. 

32. The Divine Names, as we already know, are the relations which the Absolute 
bears toward the things of the world. And on this level, there occur in the Absolute 
oppositions in accordance with the Names, such as ‘Inward’ - ‘Outward’, ‘First’ - 
‘Last’, etc. 

33. Fus., p- 144/119. 

34. Fus., P- 273/219. In the case of ‘spirits’ or non-material beings, the ‘breath’ 
spreads through ‘spiritual matter’ ( hayiil'a riihaniyah ), and in the case of ‘accidents’ 
through ‘accidental matter’. 

35. Fus -, P- 182/143-144. 

36. Man breathes, for example, and his breath ‘receives’ sounds and words, which 
are linguistic ‘forms' - al-Qashani, p. 182. 

37. Fus., PP- 182-183/mrmf 

38. ‘Vapor’ (dukhan), or ‘steam’, to be compared with the ch’i of the ancient 
Chinese. Of the ‘vapor’ of the elements, that which is ‘subtle’ becomes the governing 
spirits of the seven Heavens, whereas that which is ‘coarse’ becomes the seven 
Heavens themselves. 

39. The Essence itself has nothing to do with the appearance of the world. But as 
soon as it comes down to the level of Names it becomes ‘independent’ . And as soon as 
it becomes ‘independent’ it becomes opposed to ‘dependent’, thus causing a primary 
polarization within the Absolute itself. 


Sufism and Taoism 

40. The world, thus produced, necessarily reflects the nature of its immediate 
creator, the ‘breath of the Merciful’. And since the ‘breath of the Merciful’ requires 
polarizations because of the self-polarizing nature of the Divine Names, the world 
also is split into oppositions. 

41. Fus„ p. 185/145. 

42. ‘God shows Mercy toward Himself’ because the Divine Names are ultimately no 
other than God Himself. 

43. Fus., Com., pp. 197-198. 

44. i.e., the so-called ‘proximate causes’ ( asbab qaribah). 

45. Fus„ pp. 255-256/203. 

46. Fus„ p. 256/203. 

47. Fu$., p. 256/204. 

48. Note that Ibn ‘ Arabi recognizes in God the temporally produced Knowledge in 
addition to the ‘eternal’ ( qadim ) Knowledge. He thereby stands definitely against the 
majority of the theologians. 

X The Water of Life 

In the preceding chapter we have seen that the Mercy of God 
pervades all beings on all levels of Being. We know also that this is 
another way of saying that the Being of the Absolute pervades all 
beings which are at all entitled to be described as ‘existent’ , and that 
the Form of the Absolute runs through the entire world of Being. 
This thesis, in this general form, is the same as that which was 
discussed in Chapter IV under the key-word tashbih. In the present 
chapter the same general problem will be reconsidered from a 
particular point of view. 

The key-word to be considered as the starting-point of discussion in 
this particular context is latif, meaning roughly ‘subtle’, ‘thin’ and 
‘delicate’. Lap/stands opposite to kathif. This latter word connotes 
the quality of things ‘thick’, ‘dense’ and ‘coarse’ , that is, those things 
that are characterized by dense materiality. As the semantic oppo- 
site of this, /aft/means the quality of things, the materiality of which 
is in the extreme degree of rarefaction, and which, therefore, are 
capable of permeating the substances of other things, diffusing 
themselves in the latter and freely mixing with them. The fact that 
this word, lafif, is one of the Divine Names is, for Ibn ‘Arabi, 
extremely significant. 

The Name lafif or ‘Subtle’ with this particular connotation rep- 
resents the Absolute as a Substance ( jawhar ) which, immaterial and 
invisible, permeates and pervades the entire world of Being just as a 
color permeates substances. This Substance which is infinitely vari- 
able runs through everything and constitutes its reality. All indi- 
vidual things are called by their own particular names and are 
thereby distinguished one from the other as something ‘different’, 
but these differences are merely accidental. Seen from the view- 
point of the invisible Substance running through the whole world, 
all things are ultimately one and the same. Let us listen to Ibn ‘ Arabi 
himself as he explains this point in his peculiar way . 1 

(God) says of Himself: ‘Verily God is la(if (XXXI, 16). It is indeed 
the effect of His lafafah (i.e.. His being la(if, in the above explained 


Sufism and Taoism 

The Water of Life 


sense of non-material flexibility) and His lu(f(i.e., His being la(if in 
the sense of graciousness ) 2 that He is (immanent) in every particular 
thing which is determined as such-and-such by a particular name, as 
the inner reality of that particular thing. He is immanent in every 
particular thing in such a way that He is, in each case, referred to by 
the conventional and customary meaning of the particular name of 
that thing. Thus, we say (usually), ‘This is Heaven’ , ‘This is the earth’ , 
‘This is a tree’, ‘This is an animal’, ‘This is a king’, ‘This is food’ etc. 

But the essence itself that exists in every one of these things is simply 

The Ash’arites uphold a similar view when they assert that the world 
in its entirety is homogeneous in its Substance, because the world as a 
whole is one single Substance. This corresponds exactly to my thesis 
that the essence is one. The Ash‘arites go on to say that the world (in 
spite of the homogeneousness) differentiates itself (into different 
things) through accidents. This also is identical with my thesis that 
(the one single Essence) differentiates itself and becomes multiple 
through forms and relations so that (the things) become distinguish- 
able from one another. Thus in both of these theories, this is not that 
(i.e., the particular things are different from one another) in regard to 
the ‘form’ ($urah), or ‘accident’ (‘ arad ), or ‘natural disposition’ 
(mizaj) - you may call this (differentiating principle) by whatever 
name you like - but, on the other hand, this is the same as that in 
regard to their ‘substance’. And this is why the ‘substance’ itself (as 
‘ matter’) must be explicitly mentioned in the definition of every thing 
(having a particular) ‘form’ or ‘natural disposition’. 

However (there is also a fundamental difference between my posi- 
tion and the Ash‘arites; namely), I assert that (the Substance here in 
question) is nothing other than the ‘Absolute’, while the (Ash'arite) 
theologians imagine that what is called Substance, although it is a 
‘reality’ , is not the same absolute Reality as understood by the people 
who (uphold the theory of) ‘unveiling’ and ‘self-manifestation’. 

But this (i.e., what I teach) is the profound meaning of God’s being 

It is remarkable that in this passage Ibn ‘ArabI recognizes to a 
certain degree an identity between his thesis and the Ash‘arite 
ontology. The theologians of this school take the position that the 
world is essentially one single Substance and all the differences 
between individual things are due to accidental attributes. How- 
ever, Ibn ‘Arabi does not forget to emphasize the existence of a 
basic difference between the two schools. As al-Qashanl says, ‘the 
Ash‘arites, although they assert the unity of the Substance in all 
the forms of the world, assert also the essential duality, namely, 
that the essence of the Substance pervading the world is different 
from the Absolute’. 3 

The Qoran, immediately after stating that ‘God is latif, declares 
that ‘ God is khabir ’ , that is, God has information about everything. 

This, too, has a very special significance for Ibn ‘Arabi. If the latif is 
a reference to the relation of the Absolute with the external things 
existing in the world, the khabir refers to the relation of the Abso- 
lute with the ‘interior’ i.e., consciousness, of all those beings that 
possess consciousness. The Absolute, in other words, not only 
pervades all things that exist outwardly in the world, but runs 
through the interior of all beings possessed of consciousness and 
constitutes the inner reality of the activity of consciousness. 

The Absolute is Omniscient, and His Knowledge is eternal. So, in 
this sense, all without exception are known to the Absolute from 
eternity. But in addition to this kind of eternal Knowledge, the 
Absolute also penetrates into the interior of each one of the beings 
endowed with consciousness and knows things through the organs 
of cognition peculiar to those things. If one looks at the matter from 
the opposite, i.e., human, side, one will find that all those things that 
man thinks he sees or hears are in reality things that the Absolute 
residing in his interior sees and hears through his sense organs. 

This latter kind of Knowledge is called by Ibn ‘ Arabi - in contrast 
to the ‘absolute’ Knowledge (77m mutlaq) - the ‘experiential’ 
Knowledge (77m dhawqiy or 7/m ‘an ikhtibar ). According to him, 
the Qoranic verse: ‘Surely We will try you in order to know’ 
(XL VII, 31) refers precisely to this kind of Knowledge. Otherwise, 
it would be completely meaningless for God to say ‘in order to 
know’, because God knows (by the ‘absolute’ Knowledge) every- 
thing from the beginning. The verse is meaningful because it con- 
cerns the ‘experiential’ Knowledge. 

It is characteristic of the ‘experiential’ Knowledge, which is evi- 
dently a temporal phenomenon (hadith), that it necessarily requires 
an organ of cognition through which it is obtained. Since, however, 
God has no organs, the cognition is operated through the organs of 
individual beings, 4 although, as we know by the principle of latafah, 
the things that outwardly appear as human organs are nothing other 
than various phenomenal forms assumed by the Absolute itself. 

God (in the Qoran) qualifies Himself by the word khabir, that is, one 
who knows something by personal experience. This applies to the 
Qoranic verse: ‘Surely We will try these people in order to know’. 
The words ‘to know’ here refer to the kind of Knowledge obtainable 
through personal experience. Thus God, despite the fact that He 
(eternally) knows everything as it really is, describes Himself as 
‘obtaining Knowledge’ (in an non-absolute way) . . . And he distin- 
guishes thereby between ‘experiential’ Knowledge and ‘absolute’ 

The ‘experiential’ Knowledge is conditioned by the faculties of cogni- 
tion. God affirms this by saying of Himself that He is the very 
cognitive faculties of man. Thus He says (in a Tradition), ‘I am his 


Sufism and Taoism 

hearing’, hearing being one of the faculties of man, ‘and his sight’, 
sight, being another of man’s faculties, ‘and his tongue’, tongue 
being a bodily member of man, ‘and his feet and hands’. And we 
see, He mentions in this explanation not only faculties of man, but 
even goes to the length of mentioning bodily members (and identifies 
Himself with them). And since man is after all no other than these 
members and faculties, the inner reality itself of that which is called 
man is (according to this Tradition) the Absolute. This, however, is 
not to say that the ‘servant’ (i.e., man) is the ‘master’ (i.e., God ). 5 
All this is due to the fact that the relations in themselves are essen- 
tially distinguishable from each other, but the (Essence) to which 
they are attributed is not distinguishable (i.e., divisible). There is only 
one single Essence in all the relations. And that single Essence is 
possessed of various different relations and attributes . 6 

The Absolute, in this sense, pervades and runs through all. The 
Absolute is in all beings of the world, according to what is required 
by the reality (i.e., the eternal ‘preparedness’) of each thing. If it 
were not for this permeation of the Form of the Absolute through 
the things, the world would have no existence . 7 For, as al-Qashani 
says , 8 ‘The fundamental ground of the possible things is non- 
existence. And existence is the Form of God. So if He did not 
appear in His Form, which is existence qua existence, the whole 
world would remain in pure non-existence’. 

All beings in the state of ontological possibility absolutely require 
the permeation of Existence in order to leave the original state of 
non-existence and to come into the state of existence. This state of 
affairs is considered by Ibn ‘ Arabi analogous to the notion that any 
attribute or quality shown by a concrete particular thing cannot 
exist in actu except as an individualization of a Universal . 9 Inciden- 
tally, there is in Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought-pattern a conspicuous ten- 
dency toward Platonizing, although we surely cannot call him 
offhand a Platonist. The present case is an example illustrating this 
phase of his thought. The following remark by al-Qashani makes 
this point very explicit . 10 

(Ibn ‘Arabi here) compares the essential dependence of the existence 
of the world on the ‘form’ (i.e., the essential reality) of the Existence 
of God to the dependence of particular properties on universal 
realities, like ‘life’ in itself and ‘knowledge’ in itself. 

The existence, for example, of ‘knowledge’ in a particular person, 
Zayd, is dependent on the universal‘knowledge’ per se. If it were not 
for the latter, there would be no ‘knower’ in the world, and the 
property of ‘being a knower’ would rightly be attributed to nobody. 

In exactly the same manner, every determinate individual existent is 
dependent on the Existence of the Absolute, Existence being the 
Absolute’s ‘Face’ or Form. Apart from the Existence of the Abso- 
lute, nothing would be existent, nor would existence be predicated of 

The Water of Life 


Since, in this way, nothing can be called an ‘existent’ ( mawjud ), 
except when it is pervaded by the Form of the Absolute, all the 
existents essentially need the Absolute. This need resides deep in 
the very core of every existent. It is not one of those ordinary cases 
in which something needs externally something else. This inner 
essential dependence is called by Ibn ‘Arabi iftiqar 11 (lit. ‘poverty’, 
i.e., ‘essential need’). 

But the Absolute, on its part, cannot be actualized on the level of 
the Names and Attributes without the world. The Absolute, in this 
sense, needs the world. And thus the relation of iftiqar is reciprocal; 
the iftiqar of the world to the Absolute is in its existence, and the 
iftiqar of the Absolute to the world concerns the ‘appearance’ or 
self- manifestation of the former. This is expressed by Ibn ‘Arab! in 
verse : 12 

We (i.e., the world) give Him that by which He appears in us, while 
He gives us (the existence by which we come into outward appear- 
ance). Thus the whole matter (i.e., Being) is divided into two, 
namely, our (giving) Him (appearance) and His (giving us existence.) 

Ibn ‘Arabi describes this particular relation that obtains between 
the Absolute and the creaturely world by a bold and vividly evoca- 
tive image of Food ( ghidha ’) which he ascribes to Sahl al-Tustari. 
As al-Qashani says : 13 

The Absolute is the ‘food’ of the creatures in regard to existence, 
because the creatures exist, subsist, and are kept alive by the Abso- 
lute just in the same way as food keeps the man existent and alive who 
eats it and gets nourishment out of it. . . . 

The Absolute, on its part, eats, and is nourished by, the properties of 
the phenomenal world and the forms of the creatures ... in the sense 
that by virtue of the latter alone do the Names, Attributes, Properties 
and Relations make their actual appearance in the Absolute. 

The Names and attributes would not have existence if there were no 
world, no creatures. The creatures ‘nourish’ the Absolute as its ‘food’ by 
making manifest all the perfections of the Names and Attributes. 

You are God’s food through (your) particular properties. But He is 
also your food through the existence (which He confers upon you). In 
this respect He fulfils exactly the same function (toward you) as you 
do (toward Him). Thus the Command comes from Him to you, but it 
also goes from you to Him . 14 

Certainly, you are called mukallaf in the passive form (i.e., you are in 
this world a morally responsible person who is ‘charged’ with the 
responsibilities imposed upon you by the Sacred Law) and yet God 
has ‘charged’ you only with what you yourself asked Him, saying 
‘charge me (with such-and-such)!’, through your own state (i.e., 
permanent archetype) and through what you really are . 15 


Sufism and Taoism 

The thesis that the Absolute qua Existence is the food and nourish- 
ment of all the creatures is relatively easy to understand even for 
common-sense. But less easily acceptable is the reverse of this 
thesis; namely, that the creatures are the food of the Absolute. 

Nourishing things nourish those who assimilate them. As nourish- 
ment penetrates the body of the living being in such a way that finally 
there does not remain a single part that has not been pervaded by it, 
so does the food go into all the parts of one who has assimilated it. 
The Absolute, however, has no parts. So there is no other way than 
the ‘food’ penetrating all the ontological stations ( maqamat ) of God 
which are usually called the Names. And the Divine Essence 
becomes actually manifest by means of those stations (when the 
latter become penetrated by the ‘food ’). 16 

Food cannot act as food, that is, cannot nourish the body unless it 
penetrates all the parts of the body and is completely assimilated by 
the bodily organism. So the condition is that the body has parts. But 
the Absolute has no part, if we understand the word ‘part’ in a 
material sense. However, in a spiritual sense, the Absolute does 
have ‘parts’. The spiritual ‘parts’ of the Absolute are the Names. 
This conception has a grave implication, for it affirms that the 
Absolute on the level of the Names is thoroughly penetrated by the 
creatures, and that only by this penetration do all the possibilities 
contained in the Absolute come into concrete existence. 

Thus we see that the tajalli or Divine self-manifestation is not at 
all a unilateral phenomenon of the Absolute permeating everything 
in the world and making itself manifest in the forms of the world. 
The tajalli involves, at the same time, the permeation of the Abso- 
lute by the things of the world. Since, however, it is absurd even to 
imagine the things of the world qua substances penetrating the 
Absolute in such a way that they be assimilated by the latter, we 
must necessarily understand the process as something purely non- 
substantial. And the same is true of the other side of the process, I 
mean, the penetration of the world by the Absolute and the self- 
manifestation of the Absolute in the things of the world. The 
interpenetration of the two which takes place in the process of tajalli 
is not something that occurs between the Absolute as an Entity and 
things as entities. It is a phenomenon of pure Act on both sides. This 
point, I think, is of paramount importance for a right understanding 
of Ibn ‘Arabi’s conception of tajalli, for, unless we understand it in 
this way, we fall into a most coarse kind of materialism. 

We shall bring this section to an end by quoting with running 
commentary a few verses in which Ibn ‘ ArabI describes this process 
of reciprocal penetration : 17 

‘Thus we are to Him, as we are to ourselves. This has been proved by 
our proofs’. (Thus we, the world, are ‘food’ for God because it is we 


The Water of Life 

who sustain Him in concrete existence, as we are ‘food’ to ourselves, 
i.e., we sustain ourselves in existence by being ourselves). 

‘ He has no Being except my Being. And we owe Him our existence as 
we subsist by ourself’. (I, the world, am the only thing by which He 
manifests Himself in the world of Being. We, the world, exist only in 
the capacity of a locus for His self-manifestation, but, on the other 
hand, we are independent beings existing by ourselves as determi- 
nate things). 

‘Thus I have two faces, He and I. But He does not have / through 
(my) /’. (I, as a concrete individual being, am possessed of two faces 
opposed to each other. One of them is the Absolute qua my inmost 
essence, i.e., my He-ness. The other face is turned toward the world, 
and is my outer I-ness by which I am a creature different from the 
Absolute. Thus every creature obtains through the Absolute both 
He-ness and I-ness, while the Absolute does not obtain I-ness from 
the world, because the I-ness of any individual creature does not 
constitute by itself the I of the Absolute). 

‘ But He finds in me a locus in which to manifest Himself, and we are 
to Him like a vessel’. (By manifesting Himself in my I-ness, He 
establishes His I-ness in Himself.) 

With these preliminary remarks, we turn now to the proper subject 
of the present chapter, the permeation of the entire world by Divine 

As we have seen, ‘existence’ ( wujud ), in the world-view of Ibn 
‘ArabI, is primarily and essentially the Absolute itself in its dynamic 
aspect, i.e., as Actus. ‘Existence’ here does not simply mean that 
things are just there. The concept of ‘existence’ as the Absolute qua 
Actus is given special emphasis by Ibn ‘ArabI when he identifies it 
with Life. 

To say that the Absolute pervades and permeates all beings is to 
say that Divine Life pervades and permeates the world of Being in 
its entirety. The whole universe is pulsating with an eternal cosmic 
Life. But this pulsation is not perceptible to the majority of men. 
For them, only a small portion of the world, is alive, i.e., only some 
of the beings are ‘animals’ or living beings. In the eyes of those who 
see the truth, on the contrary, everything in the world is an ‘animal’ 
(hay a wan). 

There is nothing in the world but living beings, except that this fact is 
concealed in the present world from the perception of some men, 
while it becomes apparent to all men without exception in the 
Hereafter. This because the Hereafter is the abode of Life . 18 

Existence-Life pervades all and flows through all. The Existence- 
aspect of this fact is easy to see for everybody because everybody 
understands without any difficulty that all ‘things’ are existent. But 
the Life-aspect is not so easily perceivable. This is the reason why 



Sufism and Taoism 

the majority of people do not see that everything in the world is 
alive. To see this, the special experience of ‘unveiling’ ( kashf ) is 

The Absolute in its self-manifestation does not, as we have 
already observed, possess uniformity; on the contrary, the self- 
manifestation is infinitely variable and multiple according to the loci 
of manifestation. Thus, although it is true that Existence or Life 
pervades all, it does not pervade all uniformly and homogeneously. 
The modes of this pervasion vary from case to case according to the 
degree of purity ($afa’) and turbidity ( kudurah ). The Philosophers 
understand the differences thus produced in terms of the degree of 
the right proportion (i‘ tidal) in the mixture of the ‘elements’ 
(‘ anasir ). 19 In those cases, they maintain, in which the elemental 
mixture is actualized in a well-proportioned form, the result is the 
birth of animals. And when the mixture occurs in such a way that the 
right proportion of the elements is no longer maintained, we get 
plants. And if the mixture is further away from the right proportion, 
we get minerals or ‘inanimate’ things. 

From the viewpoint of Ibn ‘ Arab! such a theory is characteristic of 
those who are blind to the basic fact that Divine Life is manifested in 
the things of the world in various degrees of ‘purity’ and ‘turbidity’. 
Ordinary people will see the real fact only in the Hereafter when the 
‘veil’ over their sight will be removed. But the people of ‘unveiling’ 
know already in the present world that everything is alive with the 
all-pervading Life of the Absolute. 

For Ibn ‘Arab!, the most appropriate symbol of Life is afforded by 
‘water’ . Water is the ground of all natural elements, and it flows and 
penetrates into even the narrowest corners of the world. ‘The secret 
of Life has diffused into water’ . 20 And everything in existence has a 
watery element in its very constitution, because water is the most 
basic of all elements. Everything is alive because of the ‘water’ it 
contains. And the ‘watery’ element contained in all things in varying 
degrees corresponds to the He-ness of the Absolute which, as 
Actus , runs through all. 

It is significant that Ibn ‘Arab! mentions ‘water’ in this sense at the 
outset of the chapter which deals with the ‘wisdom of the Unseen’ 
symbolized by Job. Affifi points out quite appropriately in this 
connection that Job is, for Ibn ‘Arab!, a symbol of a man who strives 
to obtain ‘certainty’ (yaqin ) about the world of the Unseen. The 
excruciating pain which Job undergoes is, therefore, not a physical 
pain, but the spiritual suffering of a man who strives for, but cannot 
attain to, ‘certainty’. And when Job implores God to remove from 
him this pain, God commands him to wash himself in the running 
water beneath his feet. Here ‘water 5 symbolizes Life that runs 

The Water of Life 


through all the existents, and ‘washing oneself in water’ means to 
immerse oneself in the ‘water of existence’ and to know thereby the 
reality of existence. 21 

Thus the Water of Life is eternally flowing through all. Each 
single thing is in itself a unique existent, and yet it is immersed in the 
limitless ocean of Life together with all the other existents. In the 
first aspect, everything is unique and single, but in the second 
aspect, everything loses its identity in the midst of the ‘water’ that 
flows through all. 

Everything in the world has, in this way, two distinct aspects: (1) 
the aspect in which it is its own self, and (2) the aspect in which it is 
Divine Life. The first aspect, which is the creaturely aspect of each 
individual existent, is called by Ibn ‘Arab \ nasut or the ‘human (or 
personal) aspect’ and the second, which is the aspect of the Abso- 
lute in each individual existent, is called lahut or the ‘divine aspect’ . 

According to Ibn ‘Arab!, ‘life’ is of a spiritual nature. For it is of 
the very essential nature of ‘spirit’ that it vivifies everything which it 
touches. As Bali Efendi remarks, 22 ‘life’ is the primary attribute of 
‘spirit’, and ‘spirit’ strikes whatever it touches with this primary 

Know that all spirits have a peculiar property by which they bring to 
life everything that comes under their influence. As soon as a spirit 
touches a thing, there flows through it life . 23 

And in the view of Ibn ‘ Arab!, the whole world of Being is under the 
direct influence of the Universal Spirit. So all the things that exist 
are without a single exception in touch with it, and are, therefore, 
alive. Only the way they are influenced by it actually varies from one 
individual to another in accordance with the particular ‘prepared- 
ness’ of each. In other words, things differ one from the other in the 
intensity of Life they manifest, but all are the same in that they 
maintain their ‘selves’ in the midst of the all-pervading Life. 

The (universal) Life which flows through all things is called the 
‘divine aspect’ {lahut) of Being, while each individual locus in which 
that Spirit (i.e., Life) resides is called the ‘human aspect’ ( nasut ). The 
‘human aspect’, too, may be called ‘spirit’, but only in virtue of that 
which resides in it . 24 

The intimate relationship between nasut and lahut in man may be 
compared to the relationship that exists between ‘dough’ (‘ ajin ) and 
‘leaven’ ( khamir ). 25 Every man has in himself something of the 
Divine ‘leaven’ . If he succeeds in letting it grow in a perfect form, his 
‘dough’ will come completely under its influence and will finally be 
transformed into something of the same nature as the ‘leaven’ . This 
is what is called in the terminology of mysticism ‘self-annihilation’ 
( fana ’). 

150 Sufism and Taoism 


1. Fus., p. 239/188-189. 

2. Lafif has two meanings: ( 1) 'subtle’ and (2) 'gracious’ . The property of being ( 1) is 
called latafah and the property of being (2) is called lu(f. 

3. p. 239. 

4. In truth, however, the things that are called the organs of cognition in man are 
nothing other than particular phenomenal forms assumed by the Absolute itself. We 
know this by the above-explained principle of latafah. 

5. i.e., the He-ness (inmost essence) of ‘servant’, considered independently of the 
relation of servant-ness, is the Absolute as considered independently of the relation 
of its being God and Master. But, of course, the essence of 'servant’ qua ‘servant’, 
i.e., considered in his servant-ness, is not 'master’ qua ‘master’. -al-Qashani p. 240. 

6. p. 240/189. 

7. Fus., p. 24/55. 

8. p. 24. 

9. ‘If it were not for those universal, intelligible realities ( haqa'iq maqulah kulliyah, 
corresponding to the Ideas of Plato) , there would never appear anything in the world 
of concrete individual existents ( mawjiidat ‘ayniyyahf - Fus., p. 24/55. 

10. p. 24. 

11. Fus., P- 24/55. 

12. Fus., p. 181/143. 

13. pp. 180-181. 

14. The Command is issued to Him by you in the sense that, in bestowing existence 
upon man, He never deviates from the way which has been eternally determined by 
the archetypes. 

15. Fus., pp. 76-77/83. 

16. Fus., p. 79/84. 

17. ibid. 

18. Fus., p. 194/154. 

19. See, for instance, the explanation given by al-Ghazali in his Maqasid al- 
Falasifah, pp. 274-275, Cairo (Sa‘adah), 1331 A.H. 

The Water of Life 

22. p. 172. 

23. Fus ., p. 172/138. 

24. Fus., p. 173/138. 

25. Fus., P- 189/149. 


20. Fus., 213/170. 

21. Affifi, Fus., Com., p.245. 

The Self-manifestation of the Absolute 


XI The Self-manifestation 
of the Absolute 

Reference has frequently been made in the preceding pages to the 
concept of ‘self-manifestation’ (tajalli). And in not a few places the 
concept has been discussed and analyzed in some detail. This is 
proper because tajalli is the pivotal point of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought. 
Indeed, the concept of tajalli is the very basis of his world-view All 
his thinking about the ontological structure of the world turns round 
this axis, and by so doing develops into a grand-scale cosmic system 
No part of his world-view is understandable without reference to 
th ! s „ c . e ” tr ^ concept. His entire philosophy is, in short, a theory of 
tajalli. So by discussing various problems relating to his world-view 
we have been in fact doing nothing other than trying to elucidate 
some aspects of tajalli. In this sense, we know already quite a lot 
about the main topic of the present chapter. 

Tajalli is the process by which the Absolute, which is absolutely 
unknowable in itself, goes on manifesting itself in ever more con- 
crete forms. Since this self-manifestation of the Absolute cannot be 
actualized except through particular, determined forms the self- 
manifestation is nothing other than a self-determination or self- 
dehmmation of the Absolute. Self-determination (-delimination) in 
this sense is called \ ta‘ayyun (lit. ‘making oneself a particular, indi- 
vidual entity’). Ta‘ayyun (pi. ta‘ayyunat ) is one of the key-terms of 
Ibn ‘Arabi’s ontology. 

The self-determination, as it develops, forms a number of stages 
or levels. Properly and essentially, these stages are of a non- 
temporal structure, subsisting as they do beyond the boundaries of 
time . But at the same time they come also into the temporal order 
o things and give a particular ontological structure to it. 

At any rate, when we describe this process we are willy-nilly 
forced to follow the temporal order. And this is naturally what Ibn 

rabi himself does in his description of the phenomenon of tajalli. 
But it would be a mistake if we thought that this is merely a matter of 
necessity caused by the structure of our language, as it would be 
equally wrong to suppose that the self-manifestation of the Abso- 
lute is an exclusively temporal process. 

The self-manifestation of the Absolute is, in fact, possessed of a 
double structure. It is a trans-historical, trans-temporal phenom- 
enon, but it is also a temporal event. One might even say that this is 
precisely the greatest coincidentia oppositorum observable in the 
structure of Being. It is a temporal event because from eternity the 
same process of tajalli (the Absolute^the world) has been repeated 
and will go on being repeated indefinitely. Since, however, exactly 
the same ontological pattern repeats itself infinitely, and since, 
moreover, it is done in such a way that as the first wave is set in 
motion, there already begins to rise the second wave, the process in 
its totality comes to the same thing: an eternal, static structure. 

This dynamic-static self-manifestation of the Absolute is 
described in terms of the ‘strata’ (maratib,sg.martabah) . Let us first 
observe how al-Qashanl explains the ‘strata’. 1 

He begins by saying that there is in Being nothing except one 
single Reality {‘ayn) which is the Absolute, and its ‘realization’ 
(haqiqah), which is Being in its phenomenal (mashhiid) aspect. But, 
he adds, this phenomenal aspect of Being is not a one-stratum 
structure, but it comprises six major strata. 

The first stratum: Being at this stage is still completely free from 
any limitation. This stratum represents ‘Reality’ in its non- 
determination (la-ta‘ayyun) and non-delimination (‘ adam inhisar). 
In other words, there is as yet absolutely no self-manifestation 
occurring; Being is still the absolute Essence itself rather than a part 
of phenomenal reality. And yet it is capable of being considered a 
part of phenomenal reality in the sense that it forms the starting- 
point of all the subsequent ontological stages. It is no longer the 
Essence per se in its metaphysical darkness. 

The second stratum: Being is here ‘determined’ in itself by a kind 
of all-comprehensive self-determination comprising all the active 
determinations pertaining to the Divine aspect of Being (i.e., the 
Divine Names) as well as all the passive determinations pertaining 
to the creaturely or phenomenal aspect of Being. The Absolute at 
this stage still remains One. The One is not yet actually split into 
multiplicity; yet there is observable a faint foreboding of self- 
articulation. The Absolute, in other words, is potentially articulated. 

The third stratum: this is the stage of Divine Unity (al-ahadiyah 
al-ilahlyah) or that of Allah, where all the active ( fa'iliy ) and 
effective ( mu’aththir ) self-determinations are realized as an integral 

The fourth stratum: this is the stage at which the Divine Unity 
(3rd stage) is split into independent self-determinations, i.e., the 
Divine Names. 

The fifth stratum: this stage comprises in the form of unity all the 
self-determinations of a passive nature ( infi‘aliy ). It represents the 

154 Sufism and Taoism 

unity of the creaturely and possible things of the world of becoming. 

The sixth stratum: here the unity of the preceding stage is dis- 
solved into actually existent things and properties. This is the stage of 
the ‘world’. All the genera, species, individuals, parts, accidents, 
relations, etc., become actualized at this stage. 

As we see, this description by al-Qashani of the Divine self- 
manifestation as a multi-strata structure presents the phenomenon 
of tajalli in its static, i.e., non-temporal, aspect. Ibn ‘Arabi himself 
prefers to present the same thing in a much more dynamic way. He 
distinguishes two major types of tajalli to which we have often 
referred in the preceding; namely, the ‘most holy emanation’ ( al - 
fayd al-aqdas ) and the ‘holy emanation’ ( al-fayd al-muqaddas) . 

It is to be remarked that Ibn ‘Arabi uses the Plotinian term 
‘emanation’ (fayd) as a synonym of tajalli. But ‘emanation’ here 
does not mean, as it does in the world-view of Plotinus, one thing 
overflowing from the absolute One, then another from that first 
thing, etc. in the form of a chain. ‘Emanation’, for Ibn ‘Arabi, simply 
means that the Absolute itself appears in different, more or less 
concrete forms, with a different self-determination in each case. It 
means that one and the same Reality variously articulates and 
determines itself and appears immediately in the forms of different 

The first type of ‘emanation’, the ‘most holy emanation’, corres- 
ponds, as we have seen, to what is described by a famous Tradition 
in which the Absolute per se , i.e., the absolutely Unknown- 
Unknowable, desires to leave the state of being a ‘hidden treasure’ 
and desires to be known. Thus we see that the ‘most holy emana- 
tion’ is for the Absolute a natural and essential movement. 

The ‘most holy emanation’ represents the first decisive stage in 
the self-manifestation of the Absolute. It is the stage at which the 
Absolute manifests itself not to others but to itself. It is, in modern 
terminology, the rise of self-consciousness in the Absolute. It is 
important to remark, further, that this kind of self-manifestation 
has occurred from eternity. It is, as Nicholson says, ‘the eternal 
manifestation of the Essence to itself’. 2 

The self-manifestation of the Absolute to itself consists in the 
forms of all the possible existents making their appearance in poten- 
tia in the Consciousness of the Absolute. Another way of expressing 
the same idea is to say that the Absolute becomes conscious of itself 
as potentially articulated into an infinity of existents. The important 
point here lies in the word ‘potentially’ or in potentia. It indicates 
that the Consciousness of the Absolute being split into plurality is 
an event occurring only in the state of possibility; that the Absolute 
is not yet actually split into many, and, therefore, still maintains its 
original Unity. It is, in other words, a state in which the potential 

The Self-manifestation of the Absolute 155 

Many are still actually One. In contradistinction to the real Unity in 
which there is not even a shadow of the Many, i.e., the Unity of 
ahadlyah , this Unity which is potentially plurality is called 
wahidlyah or Oneness. 

Since the Many in the plane of Oneness are Many as the content 
of the Consciousness of the Absolute (Divine ‘Knowledge’ as the 
theologians call it), they are, philosophically, pure intelligibles, and 
not real concrete existents. They are nothing more than ‘recipients’ 
(< qawabil ) for existence. They are those that would be real existents 
if they receive existence. In this sense the Many in this plane are 
‘possible existents’ (mawjudat mumkinah) or ‘existents in potentia' 
(mawjudat bi-al-quwwah ). 3 

On this level, there is as yet nothing existent in actuality. The 
world itself is not existent. Yet there are dimly discernible the 
figures of the would-be things. I say ‘dimly discernible’; this is 
merely an imaginary picture of this ontological situation supposedly 
seen from outside. In reality and in themselves, these figures are the 
content of the Consciousness of the Absolute, and as such, nothing 
can possibly be more solidly definite and distinct. They are ‘realities’ 
(haqa’iq) in the full sense of the word. They are in themselves far 
more real than what we regard as ‘real’ in this world. They look dim 
and hazy from our point of view, because they belong to the world of 
the Unseen ( ghayb ). These realities as intelligibilia are called by Ibn 
‘Arab! ‘permanent archetypes’ ( a'yan thabitah) of which details will 
be given in the next chapter. 

The word ‘emanation’ (fayd) is, as remarked above, completely 
synonymous for Ibn ‘Arabi with ‘self-manifestation’ (tajalli). And 
he calls the ‘ most holy emanation’ also ‘essential self-manifestation’ 
(tajalli dhatiy). This latter term is defined by al-Qashani as follows: 4 

The essential self-manifestation is the appearance of the Absolute 
under the form of the permanent archetypes which are ready to 
receive existence and whose domain is the Presence (i.e., ontological 
level) of Knowledge and Names, i.e., the Presence of Oneness 
( wahidlyah ). By this appearance the Absolute descends from the 
presence of Unity (ahadlyah) to the Presence of Oneness. And this 
is the ‘most holy emanation’ of the Absolute, which consists in that 
the pure Essence not yet accompanied by any Names manifests itself 
(in the plane of the Names). So there can be no plurality at all (in 
actuality) in this self-manifestation. It is called ‘most holy’ because it 
is holier than the self-manifestation which occurs in the visible world 
as actualization of the Names, which therefore occurs in accordance 
with the ‘preparedness’ of each locus. 

The second stage of the self-manifestation, the ‘holy emanation - 
also called ‘sensuous self-manifestation’ (tajalli shuhudiy) - means 


Sufism and Taoism 

that the Absolute manifests itself in the infinitely various forms of 
the Many in the world of concrete Being. In common-sense lan- 
guage we might say that the ‘holy emanation’ refers to the coming 
into being of what we call ‘things’ , including not only substances, but 
attributes, actions, and events. 

From the particular point of view in Ibn ‘ Arabi, the ‘holy emana- 
tion’ means that the permanent archetypes, which have been 
brought into being by the ‘most holy emanation’ leave the state of 
being intelligibles, diffuse themselves in sensible things, and thus 
cause the sensible world to exist in actuality. In plain Aristotelian 
terminology, it means the ontological process of the transformation 
of things in potentia into corresponding things in actu. This is clearly 
a deterministic ontology, because, in this world-view, the actual 
form in which everything exists in the world is an ultimate result of 
what has been determined from eternity. As al-Qashani says: s 

The sensuous self-manifestation which occurs through the Names 
follows the ‘preparedness’ of the locus in each case. This kind of 
self-manifestation is dependent upon the ‘recipients’ which are no 
other than the loci in which the Names become manifested. In this 
respect it is completely different from the essential self- 
manifestation, because the latter is not dependent upon anything 

The relation between these two forms of self-manifestation is dis- 
cussed by Ibn ‘Arabi in an important passage of the Fusus. In this 
passage he happens to be talking about the coming into being of the 
‘heart’ (qalb). But we are entitled to replace it by anything else and 
thus to understand it as a general theoretical explanation of the two 
forms of self-manifestation . 6 

God has two forms of self-manifestation: one is self-manifestation in 
the Unseen and the other in the visible world. 

By the self-manifestation in the Unseen He gives the ‘preparedness’ 
which will determine the nature of the heart (in the visible world). 
This is the essential self-manifestation whose reality is the Unseen. 
And this self-manifestation in the Unseen is (that which constitutes) 
the He-ness which rightly belongs to Him (as the objectifying projec- 
tion of Himself toward the outside), as is witnessed by the fact that 
He designates Himself by (the pronoun of the third person) ‘He ’. 7 
Thus God is ‘He’ eternally, everlastingly. 

Now when the ‘preparedness’ is actualized for the heart, there occurs 
correspondingly in the visible world the sensuous self-manifestation. 
The heart, on its part, perceives it, and assumes the form of that 
which has manifested itself to it. 

We may summarize all this in a general theoretical form as follows. 
The first self-manifestation of the Absolute brings into being the 
permanent archetypes which are the self-manifesting forms of the 

The Self-manifestation of the Absolute 


Divine Names, i.e., the ontological possibilities contained in the 
Absolute. These archetypes are ‘recipients’ waiting for concrete 
existentiation. They provide loci for the second type of self- 
manifestation. And each locus ( mahall ) has a definite ‘prepared- 
ness’ which, as an immediate effect of the first self-manifestation of 
the Absolute, is eternal and unalterable. Even the Absolute cannot 
alter or modify it, because it is a form in which the Absolute 
manifests itself. Thus the Absolute, in making each ‘recipient’ a 
locus of its second (sensuous) self-manifestation, determines itself 
in strict accordance with the eternal ‘preparedness’ of the ‘reci- 
pient’. The Absolute in this way takes on indefinitely various forms 
in its sensuous self-manifestation. And the totality of all these forms 
constitute the phenomenal world. 

Such a description is liable to suggest that there is an interval of 
time between the first and the second self-manifestation. In reality, 
however, there is no relation of priority and posteriority between 
the two. Everything occurs at one and the same time. For, in the 
very moment in which ‘preparedness’ arises on the part of a thing (in 
truth, however, every ‘preparedness’ is already in existence from 
eternity because the first type of self-manifestation has been going 
on from eternity,) the Divine Spirit flows into it and makes it appear 
as a concretely existent thing. As we have remarked at the outset, 
the relation between the two kinds of self-manifestation is a tem- 
poral phenomenon, being at the same time a non-temporal or 
trans-temporal structure. In this latter sense, the self-manifestation 
in the Unseen and the self-manifestation in the visible world are 
nothing but two basic constituent elements of Being. 

The Divine procedure (concerning the self-manifestation) is such 
that God never prepares any locus but that it (i.e., that locus) receives 
of necessity the working of the Divine Spirit, a process which God 
describes as ‘breathing into’ it. And this refers to nothing else than 
the actualization, or the part of the locus thus formed, a particular 
‘preparedness’ for receiving the emanation, that is, the perpetual 
self-manifestation that has been going on from eternity and that will 
be going on to eternity . 8 


1. p. 239. Cf. Chapter I, where al-Qashani gives a slightly different explanation of 
the matter. 

2. R.A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, Cambridge, 1921, p. 155, N. 1. 

3. Fuy., p. 10/49. 


Sufism and Taoism 

4. p. 10. 

5. pp. 10-11. 

6. Fu$., pp. 145-146/120. 

7. In the Qoran God frequently speaks in the third person, referring to Himself as 
‘He’ instead of T. 

8. Fu$., p. 10/49. 

XII Permanent Archetypes 

The concept of ‘permanent archetype’ (‘ ayn thabitah, pi. a‘yan 
thabitah) has a number of important facets. So, in order that we 
might fully elucidate its essential structure, it must be considered 
analytically from different points of view. Although most of these 
different aspects of the ‘permanent archetype’ have been referred 
to in the course of the preceding chapters, some of them having 
been discussed at considerable length and others more or less 
incidentally touched upon, we shall deal with them all in the present 
chapter in a more systematic way. 

I The Intermediary Nature of the Archetypes 

That which we know best about the archetypes is their ontologically 
intermediate status. Briefly stated, the plane of the archetypes 
occupies a middle position between the Absolute in its absoluteness 
and the world of sensible things. 

As a result of this peculiar ontological position, the archetypes 
have the double nature of being active and passive, that is, passive in 
relation to what is higher and active in relation to things that stand 
lower than themselves. Their passivity is expressed by the word 
qabil (pi. qawabil ) which Ibn ‘ Arabi often uses in his description of 
the archetypes. They are ‘recipients’, receptive and passive in so far 
as they are nothing but potentialities in the Divine Essence. Their 
nature is passively determined by the very inner structure of the 
Essence. But considered in themselves, they are of a self- 
determining nature and exercise a determining power over the 
possible things of the world. They are each the eidetic reality {‘ayn) 
of a possible thing. And all the possible things become actualized in 
the phenomenal world each according to the requirement of its own 
permanent archetype. 

As we have remarked earlier , 1 the Absolute must ‘breathe out’ 
because of the intense inner compression of Being. It is in the very 
nature of the Absolute that it should externalize itself. The 

160 Sufism and Taoism 

Absolute, in this respect, is not a static ‘One’, but a dynamic ‘One’ 
with a natural propensity for self-externalization and self- 
articulation. Outwardly and actually it is unquestionably ‘One’, but 
inwardly and potentially it is Many. 

It is important to note that this self-externalization of the Abso- 
lute is done according to certain fixed patterns at both the first and 
the second stage of tajalli. The Absolute, at the first stage of tajalli, 
articulates itself not haphazardly but through certain definite chan- 
nels. These channels have been fixed from eternity by the very inner 
structure of the Absolute. Theologically, they are the Divine 
Names. And the permanent archetypes are the essential forms 
(suwar) of the Divine Names. Since, moreover, all this is an occur- 
rence within the Divine consciousness, the archetypes are realities 
(haqa’iq) eternally subsistent in the world of the Unseen. 

And these realities definitely determine the form of the second 
stage of the self-manifestation, i.e., the self-manifestation of the 
Absolute in the concrete individual things in the external world. 
Here again the Absolute manifests itself in the phenomenal world 
not in haphazard forms; the forms in which it manifests itself are 
determined by the eternal realities that have been produced by the 
first tajalli. If we suppose, for example, that there were in the plane 
of the archetypes nothing but Horse and Man, there would be in our 
world only horses and men, nothing else. 

The archetypes are, in this sense, double-faced. On the one hand, 
they are essentially determined by the Absolute, because they owe 
their particular existence to the latter. But, on the other, they 
positively determine the way in which the Absolute actualizes itself 
in the phenomenal world. As to this determining force of the 
archetypes, details will be given presently. Here it is sufficient to 
note that the intermediary nature of the archetypes is clearly 
observable in the peculiarity which has just been mentioned. 

The second important point in which the intermediary nature of the 
archetypes stands out with utmost clarity is their ‘being non- 
existent’ ( ma‘dum ). 

The essences of the possible things (i.e., the permanent archetypes) 
are not luminous because they are non-existent. Certainly they do 
have permanent subsistence ( thubut ), but they are not qualified by 
existence, because existence is Light . 2 

The fact that Ibn ‘Arab! designates the archetypes by calling them 
‘the essences of the possible things’, though in itself an important 
statement, is not relevant to our present concern. 3 Rather, we 
should note here his judgment that the archetypes are ‘non- 
existent’. Similarly in another passage he says: 4 

Permanent Archetypes 161 

The archetypes are essentially characterized by non-existence 
(‘ adam ). Surely they are ‘permanently subsistent’ {thabitah), but they 
are permanently subsistent only in the state of non-existence. They 
have not even smelt the fragrance of existence. Thus they remain 
eternally in that state (i.e., non-existence) despite the multiplicity of 
the forms (which they manifest in the existent things). 

Ibn ‘ Arabi judges the archetypes to be ‘ non-existent’ because in this 
particular context he understands the word ‘existence’ ( wujud ) in 
the sense of ‘external existence’. Seen from the viewpoint of exter- 
nal or phenomenal existence, the archetypes are not existent, 
although they are ‘permanently subsistent’. The ‘permanent subsist- 
ence’ ( thubut ) is different from external existence. Symbolically, the 
archetypes are ‘dark’. They are dark because they are not yet 
illumined by the bright daylight of existence. Existence as Light 
belongs only to the individual things that exist concretely and 

It is patent, then, that it is not Ibn ‘Arabi’ s intention to assert that 
the archetypes are non-existent in an absolute sense. We have 
already observed that the archetypes are permanent ‘realities’ that 
subsist in the Divine Consciousness. They do exist in the same sense 
in which concepts are said to exist in the human mind. He only 
means to say that the archetypes do not possess a temporally and 
spatially determined existence. And in this very particular sense, 
the Divine Names, too, must be said to be non-existent. ‘The Names 
in their multiplicity are but relations which are of a non-existent 
nature’. 5 

Thus we see that it is not strictly exact to regard the archetypes as 
non-existent. More exact it is to say they are neither existent nor 
non-existent. And, in fact, Ibn ‘Arab! himself explicitly says so in a 
short, but exceedingly important article to which incidental refer- 
ence was made in an earlier place. 6 It is to be noted that in this 
passage he takes up a more philosophical position than in his Fusu$ 
in dealing with the problem of the archetypes. 

The third thing 7 is neither qualified by existence nor by non- 
existence, neither by temporality nor by eternity ( a parte ante). But it 
has always been with the Eternal from eternity. . . . 

It is neither existent nor non-existent. . . . But it is the root (i.e., the 
ontological ground) of the world. . . . For from this third thing has the 
world come into being. Thus it is the very essential reality of all the 
realities of the world. It is a universal and intelligible reality subsist- 
% ing in the Mind. It appears as eternal in the Eternal and as temporal in 

the temporal. So, if you say that this thing is the world, you are right, 
fl And if you say that it is the Absolute, the Eternal, you are equally 

right. But you are no less right if you say that it is neither the world 
nor the Absolute, but something different from both. All these 
statements are true of this thing. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Thus it is the most general Universal comprising both temporality 
(huduth) and eternity (qidam). It multiplies itself with the multiplic- 
ity of the existent things. And yet it is not divided by the division of 
the existent things; it is divided by the division of the intelligibles. In 
short, it is neither existent nor non-existent. It is not the world, and 
yet it is the world. It is ‘other’, and yet it is not ‘other’. 

The main point of this argument is that this ‘third thing’ is the world 
in potentiality, but that, from the viewpoint of the world as a real 
and concrete existent, it is not the world, but rather non-Being and 
the Absolute. 

Then Ibn ‘Arabi proceeds to examine the problem from the 
standpoint of Aristotelian philosophy and identifies this third thing 
which can neither be said to exist nor not to exist with the hayula or 
Prime Matter , 8 

The relation of this thing . . . with the world is comparable to the 
relation of wood with (various things fabricated out of wood, like) a 
chair, wooden case, pulpit, litter etc., or to the relation of silver with 
(silver) vessels and objects made of silver like collyrium-cases, ear- 
rings, and rings. 

The comparison makes the nature and essence of this (third) thing 
clear. Take, then, only the relation here suggested (between wood 
and pieces of furniture made of wood) without, however, picturing in 
your mind any diminishing in it (i.e., in the third thing) as you picture 
actual diminishing in the wood when a writing-desk is taken out of it. 
Know that wood itself is a particular form assumed by ‘wood-ness’. 
(Do not picture in your mind a piece of wood, but) concentrate your 
attention upon the intelligible universal reality which is ‘wood-ness’. 
Then you will see that ‘wood-ness’ itself neither diminishes nor is 
divided (by your actually fabricating real objects out of wood). On 
the contrary, ‘wood-ness’ always remains in its original perfection in 
all the chairs and desks without ever diminishing. Nor does it increase 
a bit in spite of the fact that in a wooden desk, for example, there are 
many realities gathered together besides the reality of ‘wood-ness’, 
like that of ‘oblong-ness’, that of ‘square-ness’, that of ‘quantity’ etc., 
all of them being therein in their respective perfection. The same is 
true of any chair or pulpit. 

And the ‘third thing’ is precisely all these ‘realities’ in their respective 
perfection. So call it, if you like, the reality of realities, or hayula 
(Greek hyle), or Prime Matter, or the genus of all genera. And call 
these realities that are comprised by this third thing the ‘primary 
realities’ or ‘high genera’. 

One special point is worthy of notice in this connection. Ibn ‘Arabi 
here observes the intermediary nature of the archetypes not only in 
their being neither existent nor non-existent, but also in their being 
neither ‘temporal’ nor ‘eternal’. So it is wrong, or at least an over- 
simplification, to say that Ibn ‘Arab! takes up the position that ‘the 
world is eternal ( qadim )’ 9 because the archetypes are eternal. 

Permanent Archetypes 



Surely the archetypes are ‘eternal’ in a certain sense precisely 
because they represent the intermediary stage between the Abso- 
lute and the phenomenal world. But they are ‘eternal’ only secon- 
darily and derivatively in the sense that they, as the content itself of 
the Divine Consciousness or Knowledge, have been connected 
(muqarin) with the Absolute from eternity. Their eternity is in this 
sense essentially different from the eternity of the Absolute. 

Generally speaking, and particularly in cases of this kind, the true 
nature of anything intermediary is impossible to describe ade- 
quately by language. Thus one is forced to resort, as Ibn ‘Arabi 
actually does, to a clumsy expression, like ‘it is neither eternal nor 
temporal, but it is, on the other hand, both eternal and temporal’ . If 
from the whole of this complex expression we pick up only the 
phrase, ‘(it is) eternal’ and draw from it the conclusion that Ibn 
‘Arabi maintained the doctrine of the eternity of the world , 10 we 
would be doing him gross injustice. 

In a passage of the Fu$us, in connection with the problem of the 
absolute inalterability of the cause-caused relationship in this 
world, Ibn ‘Arab! discusses the ‘eternity’ -‘temporality’ of the 
archetypes in the following way . 11 

There is absolutely no way of making the causes effectless because 
they are what is required by the permanent archetypes. And nothing 
is actualized except in the form established for it in the archetypal 
state. For ‘there is no altering for the words of God’ (X, 64). And the 
‘words of God’ are nothing other than the archetypes of the things in 
existence. Thus ‘eternity’ is ascribed to the archetypes in regard to 
their permanent subsistence, and ‘temporality’ is ascribed to it in 
regard to their actual existence and appearance. 

These words clarify the intermediary state peculiar to the 
archetypes between ‘eternity’ and ‘temporality’. 

II The Archetypes as Universals 

As we have noticed in the preceding section, the archetypes in Ibn 
‘ArabFs thought are, theologically, ‘realities’ in the Knowledge of 
God, i.e., intelligibles existing permanently and eternally in the 
Divine Consciousness alone. But from the point of view of scholas- 
tic philosophy, they are Universals standing over against Particu- 
lars. And the relation of the archetypes to the world is exactly the 
ontological relation of Universals to Particulars. The problem of 
how the Divine self-manifestation is actualized in the realm of 
external existence through the fixed channels of the archetypes is 
nothing other than the problem of the individuation of Universals. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Permanent Archetypes 


We must note that this aspect on Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s philosophy is to a 
considerable extent Platonic. In any event, the permanent 
archetypes, in this particular aspect , remind us of the Ideas of Plato. 

There is, in his Fu$u$, an important passage where he develops 
this problem scholastically . 12 There he deals with the philosophical 
aspect of Divine Attributes such as Knowledge, Life, etc . 13 It will be 
clear by what has preceded that his theory of Attributes is identical 
with the theory of archetypes. 

We assert that the universal things ( umur kulliyah, i.e., Universals 
corresponding to Platonic Ideas), although they have no actual exis- 
tence in themselves, are unquestionably (existent as) intelligibles and 
objects of knowledge, in the mind (i.e., primarily in the Divine 
Consciousness, and secondarily in the human minds). They remain 
‘interior’ ( batinah ) and never leave the state of invisible existence 14 
(i.e., the state of existence in the plane of the Unseen). 

The passage is paraphrased by al-Qashani as follows : 15 

The ‘universal things’, that is, those things that are essentially non- 
material ( mutlaqah ) such as Life and Knowledge, have a concrete 
existence only in Reason, while in the outer world they have an 
invisible existence. This is because existence in the outer world is the 
very same non-material intelligibles as determined by concrete, indi- 
vidual conditions. But (even when it is actualized in the outer world) 
a non-material Universal still remains in the state of being an intellig- 
ible and still stands under the name ‘Interior’. A Universal never 
exists in the outer world in its universality, but only in a concretely 
determined form. And in this latter capacity only does a Universal 
come under the name ‘Exterior’. 

Ibn ‘Arabi goes on to argue : 16 

But (i.e., although their existence is invisible) Universals have a 
powerful and positive effect on everything that has a concrete indi- 
vidual existence. Rather, the individualized existence - I mean, all 
individual existents are nothing other than Universals. And yet Uni- 
versals in themselves never cease to be pure intelligibles. Thus they 
are ‘exterior’ in respect to their being concrete existents, but they are 
‘interior’ in respect to their being intelligibles. So every concrete 
thing that exists has its origin in the (realm of) these ‘universal 
matters’ which have the above-mentioned peculiarity, namely, that 
they are inseparably connected with Reason and that they can never 
come to exist in the plane of concrete existence in such a way as to 
cease to be pure intelligibles. This basic situation does not change 
whether a particular individual existent (in which a Universal is 
actualized) happens to be something temporally conditioned (e.g., 
ordinary material objects) or something beyond the limitations of 
time (e.g., higher Spirits). For a Universal bears one and the same 
relation to both temporal and non-temporal things. 


The relation between Universals and Particulars is not as one-sided 
as this passage might suggest; it has also an aspect in which Particu- 
lars do exercise a determining force upon Universals. A Universal, 
as we have just seen, remains eternally the same as it appears in 
individual particulars, say, abed. But since each one of these 
particulars has its own peculiar ‘nature’ (f abVah ), the Universal 
must necessarily be affected by a b c d as it is actualized in them. The 
Universal, in other words, becomes tinged in each case with a 
particular coloring. 

The ‘universal matters’, on their part, are also positively affected by 
the concrete existents in accordance with what is required by the 
individual realities of the latter. 

Take for example the relation of ‘knowledge’ to ‘knower’, and ‘life’ 
to ‘living being’. ‘Life’ is an intelligible reality, and ‘knowledge’ is an 
intelligible reality, both being different and distinguishable from one 
another. Now we say concerning God that He has Life and Know- 
ledge, so He is Living and He is a Knower. Likewise, we say concern- 
ing an angel that he has ‘life’ and ‘knowledge’, so he is ‘living’ and he 
is a ‘knower’. Lastly, we say concerning man that he has ‘knowledge’ 
and ‘life’, so he is ‘living’ and a ‘knower’. 

(Throughout all these cases) the reality of ‘knowledge’ is one, and the 
reality of ‘life’ is one. The relation of ‘knowledge’ to ‘knower’ and of 
‘life’ to ‘living’ is equally one. And yet we say concerning the Know- 
ledge of God that it is eternal, while concerning the ‘knowledge’ of 
man we say that it is temporal. See what a positive effect has been 
produced upon the intelligible reality (‘knowledge’) by the particular 
attribution. See how the intelligibles are connected with the concrete 
individual existents. Just as ‘knowledge’ affects the substrate in which 
it inheres to make it deserve the appellation ‘knower’, the particular 
substrate to which ‘knowledge’ is attributed affects the ‘knowledge’ 
in such a way that it becomes temporal in a temporal being and 
eternal in the eternal being. Thus both sides affect each other and are 
affected by each other . 17 

As to the ontological status of Universals, Ibn ‘Arabi says that they 
are ‘non-existent’ , meaning thereby that they are not endowed with 
concrete individual existence in the material world. But, of course, 
as we know already, they are not sheer ‘nothing’; they do have a 
particular kind of existence, i.e., non-material, intelligible 

A Universal becomes actualized in an individual thing and natur- 
ally becomes tinged with a special coloring peculiar to the locus. But 
since in such a case it is not individualized in itself, it does not 
become qualified by the properties of distinction and divisibility 
which are characteristic of individual things. While, therefore, the 
relation between a Particular and a Particular is a solid one, being 
based on the strong tie of concrete physical existence, the relation 


166 Sufism and Taoism 

between a Universal and a Particular, although far more essential 
than the former relation, is weaker because it is an essentially 
‘non-existentiaP, i.e., intelligible relation. 

It is patent that these ‘universal matters’, although they are intellig- 
ibles, are non-existent in terms of concrete physical existence, but are 
only existent as an invisible (but real) force (affecting the concrete 
individual things.) When, however, they enter into actual relation 
with individual existents, they also are affected by the latter. They do 
accept the positive effect (exercised by the individual existents) 
except that they do not thereby become physically distinct and 
divided. For this is absolutely impossible to occur (to a Universal). 
For it remains as it is in all individuals which are qualified by it - like, 
for example, ‘humanity’ ( insaniyah ‘being-a-man’) appearing in each 
single individual of the species of man - being itself never particular- 
ized, never becoming multiple despite the multiplicity of individuals, 
and never ceasing to be intelligible. 

Thus it is clear that there is a close reciprocal tie between things 
possessed of a concrete existence (i.e., Particulars) and things that 
are deprived of a concrete existence (i.e., Universal). And yet the 
Universal are in the nature of ‘non-existence’. So the reciprocal tie 
existing between concrete things and concrete things is more easily 
conceivable, because in this case there is always a third term which 
connects the both sides together: I mean, concrete existence. In the 
former case, on the contrary, there is no such connecting link, and the 
reciprocal tie subsists here without a connecting link. Naturally, the 
relation with such a link is stronger and more real . 18 

Ill Necessity and Possibility 

As we have seen already, Ibn ‘Arab! often refers to the permanent 
archetypes as ‘essences of the possible things’ ( a‘yan al-mumkinat ) 
meaning thereby the essential realities of the possible things. The 
word mumkinat or ‘possible things’ points, on the face of it, to 
concrete individual existents in the world. This is justified in so far as 
the concrete existents of Particulars are essentially ‘possible’ 
because they do not have in themselves the principle of existence. 
On the other hand, however, they are not ‘possible’ but rather 
‘necessary’ in so far as they exist in actuality in definitely fixed 
forms. From this point of view, what are essentially ‘possible” are 
the archetypes. For the archetypes, as has been made clear in the 
preceding section, remain in themselves ‘intelligible’ without being 

There are some among the thinkers, says Ibn ‘Arab!, who, 
‘because of the weakness of their intellect’ deny the category of 
‘possibility’ ( imkan ) and assert that there are only two ontological 

Permanent Archetypes 167 

categories: ‘necessity by itself’ ( wujiib bi-al-dhat ) and ‘necessity by 
(something) other (than itself)’ ( wujub bi-al-ghayr ). However, he 
goes on to say, those who know the truth of the matter admit the 
category of ‘possibility’, and know that ‘possibility’, though it is 
after all a kind of ‘necessity by other’, does possess its own peculiar 
nature which makes it the third ontological category. 19 

Explicating this idea of his Master, al-Qashani analyzes the con- 
cept of ‘possible’ ( mumkin ) as follows. 20 All existents are divisible 
into two major categories according to the relation which the reality 
of a thing bears to existence: (1) the thing whose reality by itself 
requires existence, and (2) those whose reality by itself does not 
require existence. 

The first is the ‘necessary by itself’ or the Necessary Existent. The 
second is further divided into two categories: (1) those whose very 
nature requires non-existence, and (2) those whose nature by itself 
requires neither existence nor non-existence. The first of these is the 
category of the ‘impossible’ , while the second is the ‘possible’ . Then 
he says: 

Thus the ‘possible’ is an ontological dimension ( hadrah , lit. ‘Pres- 
ence’) peculiar to the plane of Reason, a state before external exis- 
tence, considered in itself. Take, for example, ‘black’. In itself it is 
only in the plane of Reason, requiring neither existence nor non- 
existence. But in the outer world it cannot but be accompanied either 
by the existence of a cause or by the absence of cause, there being no 
third case between these two. 

And when the cause is present in its complete form, the existence of 
the thing (the ‘possible’) becomes ‘necessary’. Otherwise, its non- 
existence is ‘necessary’ due to non-existence of a complete cause. (In 
the first case, it is ‘necessary by other’, while in the second case) it is 
‘impossible by other’. Thus we see that the ‘possible’ in the state of 
real existence is a ‘necessary by other’ . But in itself and in its essence, 
i.e., apart from its actual state of existence, it is (still) a ‘possible by 

The definition of the ‘possible’ by al-Qashani, namely, that it is an 
ontological state in which a thing finds itself previous to external 
existence, makes it patent that a Universal is essentially and in itself 
a ‘possible’ , for a Universal in itself is an ‘existent in Reason’ , that is, 
a pure intelligible, before it goes into the state of external existence. 
His explanation also makes it clear that a Universal, when it 
becomes particularized and enters into the domain of external 
existence in the form of an individual, obtains two features. In its 
essence, it is still a ‘possible’ even in the state of external existence, 
but it is a ‘necessary by other’ in so far as it is now existent externally 
and has thereby what we might call an ontic necessity. Such is the 
real nature of everything that is called ‘temporal’ ( hadith or 


Sufism and Taoism 

muhdath ) , 21 And that which causes this ontological transformation, 
i.e., that which brings out an ‘essentially possible’ into the sphere of 
external existence and changes it into an ‘accidentally necessary’ 
can be nothing other than the ‘essentially necessary’, the Absolute. 

There can be no doubt that a temporally originated thing ( muhdath ) 
is definitely something brough into existence (by an agent), so it has 
an ontological need ( iftiqar , lit. ‘poverty’) towards an agent that has 
produced it. This is due to the fact that, such a thing being essentially 
‘possible’, its existence must come from something other than itself. 
The tie which binds such a thing to its originator is a tie of ontological 

That (agent) to which a ‘possible’ owes its existence in such an 
essential way can be nothing other than something whose existence is 
necessary in itself, and which does not owe its existence to anything 
else and has, therefore, no need of anything else. It must be this thing 
that - by itself - gives existence to all temporal things so that the latter 
are essentially dependent upon it. 

Since, however, the coming into existence of the ‘possible’ is what is 
required essentially by the ‘necessary’, the former acquires (in this 
respect) a ‘necessity’ from the latter. And since, moreover, the 
dependence of the ‘possible’ on the (‘necessary’) from which it comes 
into existence is essential, the ‘possible’ must necessarily appear in 
the likeness of the ‘necessary’. And this likeness extends to every 
name and attribute possessed by the ‘possible’, except one single 
thing: the essential necessity ( wujub dhatiy), for this last thing can 
never come to a temporally produced thing. Thus it comes about that 
a temporal thing, although it is a ‘necessary’ existent, its ‘necessity’ is 
not its own but is due to something other than itself . 22 

IV The Absolute Power of the Archetypes 

The archetypes are ‘permanent’ or ‘permanently subsistent’ 
(thabitah), i.e., they have been fixed once for all in the eternal past, 
and are, therefore, absolutely unalterable and immovable. ‘There is 
no altering for the words of God’ (X, 64). This absolute unalter- 
ableness of the archetypes restricts in a certain sense even the 
activity of the Absolute. This may sound blasphemous at first, but in 
reality it is not so. For, theologically speaking, it is the very Will of 
God that has given them this unalterableness, and in a terminology 
more characteristic of Ibn ‘Arabi, they are no other than inner 
determinations of the Absolute itself. 

It is not for the Divine Will to change what has been determined 
at the stage of the archetypes. And it is unthinkable that God should 
will such a thing. The Qoranic statement concerning the disbeliev- 
ers: ‘but if He so willed, He would have guided you aright all 
together’ (XVI, 91) might seem to imply that it is quite possible that 

Permanent Archetypes 

God should will just the contrary of what has actually happened, 
i.e., the contrary of what has been determined on the level of the 
archetypes. This, however, is due, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, to a very 
simple misunderstanding. The particle law meaning ‘if’ (in the 
clause ‘if He so willed’ fa-law shaa) is a grammatical device for 
expressing a supposition of something which is actually impossible. 
Thus the Qoranic verse suggests rather the absolute impossibility of 
God’s wishing to guide aright the disbelievers. 23 

We established in the preceding section that the archetypes are 
‘possibles’. But in the light of what we have just seen about the 
immovable fixity of the archetypes, we must admit also that their 
‘possibility’ is of a very particular nature. A ‘possible’ is a thing 
which is capable of becoming either a or its contradictory, non -a. 
Thus, to take an example directly relevant to the Qoranic verse just 
mentioned, a man as a ‘possible’ is capable of becoming either a 
‘believer’ or a ‘disbeliever’, that is, of receiving in actuality either 
the ‘guidance’ of God or ‘going astray from the Way’. In reality, 
however, it is determined from the very beginning whether the thing 
will be actualized as a or as non-a. If it happens to be determined in 
the direction of a, for instance, even God cannot change its course 
and actualize it as non-a. 

A ‘possible’ is in itself capable of receiving either something or its 
contradictory, on the level of rational reasoning. But as soon as it is 
actualized as either of the two logically possible things, (we come to 
know that) that was the thing for which the ‘possible’ was destined 
when it was in the archetypal state. ... 

Thus (it is clear in the case of those disbelievers referred to in the 
above-quoted Qoranic verse that) God actually did not ‘will’ that 
way, so that He did not guide aright all those people. Nor will He ever 
‘will’ that way. ‘If-He-wills’ will be of no avail. For is it at all imagin- 
able that He should do so? No, such a thing will never come to pass. 

For His Will goes straight to its objects (in accordance with what has 
been determined from eternity) because His Will is a relation which 
strictly follows His Knowledge, and His Knowledge strictly follows 
the object of Knowledge. And the object of Knowledge is you and 
your states (i.e., the individual thing and its properties as they have 
been immovably fixed in the state of archetypal permanence). It is 
not the Knowledge that influences its object, but rather it is the object 
of Knowledge that influences the Knowledge, for the object confers 
what it is in its essence upon the Knowledge . 24 

God knows each individual thing in its eternal essence, and exer- 
cises His Will on the basis of that Knowledge. But, as we already 
know, God’s exercising His Will is the same as His bestowing 
existence. So, since God’s bestowal of existence is done in this way 
on the basis of His Knowledge about the eternal essence of each 

170 Sufism and Taoism 

. thing, the existence bestowed upon individual things must necessar- 
ily assume a different form in each case. 

But there is also another aspect to the matter. The existence itself 
which God bestows upon the things is, in so far as it is existence, 
always one and the same. Existence qua existence can never differ 
from one case to another. God bestows upon all things one and the 
same existence, but the individual ‘recipients’ receive it in different 
ways, each according to its own particular nature, and actualize it in 
different forms. Ibn ‘Arab! describes this aspect of the matter by 
saying: God does nothing more than bestowing existence; it is men 
who determine and delimit it individually, and give it particular 
coloring, each according to his archetype. 

‘There is not even one among us but has his own determined position’ 
(XXXVII, 164). This (i.e., the ‘determined position’) refers to what 
you were in the state of archetypal subsistence according to which 
you have come into being. You can look at the matter in this way 
when you affirm that you do have existence. But even if you affirm 
that existence belongs to the Absolute, not to you, still you have 
unquestionably a determining power upon the existence coming 
from the Absolute. Of course, once you are a real existent, your 
determining power has undoubtedly a part to play in it, though 
properly speaking the ultimate Determiner is the Absolute. 

In this respect, then, to the Absolute belongs only the act of directing 
existence toward you, while the actual determination of it belongs to 
you. So do not praise except yourself, do not blame except yourself. 
There remains for the Absolute only the praise for having given (you) 
existence. For that definitely is the act of the Absolute, not yours. 25 

This way of thinking cannot but raise a number of crucial problems 
within the framework of Islamic thought. Most noteworthy of them 
is the repercussion it produces in the field of moral ideas. 

All men are just as they are, according to Ibn ‘ Arabi, because they 
have been so determined by their own permanent archetypes from 
eternity. No one in the world, whether he be good or bad, a believer 
or a disbeliever, goes against the Will of God. Taking the example of 
one who disobeys the Apostle of God, ‘contender’ {munazV), Ibn 
‘Arab! argues: 26 

He who contends against him (i.e., the Apostle of God) is not thereby 
deviating from his own reality in which he was in the archetypal state 
when he was still in the state of non-existence. For nothing comes 
into being except that which he had in the state of non-existence, i.e., 
archetypal subsistence. So (by struggling in opposition to the Apostle 
of God) he is not stepping over the boundaries set by his reality, nor 
does he commit any fault on his (predetermined) road. 

Thus calling his behavior ‘contending’ (niza‘) is merely an accidental 
matter which is a product of the veils covering the eyes of ordinary 

Permanent Archetypes 


people. As God says: ‘But the majority of men do not know. They 
know only the apparent surface of the present world, while being 
completely neglectful of the Hereafter’ (XXX, 6-7). Thus it is clear 
that it (i.e., regarding their behavior as ‘contending’) is nothing but 
an inversion (i.e., one of those things which the people whose eyes 
are veiled turn upside down). 

This argument on the ‘contender’ applies to every phenomenon in 
the world. Everything, whether good or bad from the human point 
of view, is what it is in accordance with what has been definitely and 
immovably determined from eternity. Everything, in this sense, 
goes the way prepared beforehand by the Divine Will, and nothing 
can deviate from it. 

If the distinction between good and bad is but an accidental matter, 
and if everything occurs as it has been determined by its own 
archetype, the doctrine of the reward for the good and the chastise- 
ment for the bad, which is one of the most basic articles of faith in 
Islam, must necessarily be gravely affected. Here follows the pecul- 
iar interpretation by Ibn ‘Arab! of the problem of ‘reward and 
punishment’ ( thawab-‘iqab ). 27 

The rise of the distinction between good and bad (from the 
religious point of view) is a phenomenon which occurs only at the 
level upon which human beings live a social life in a religious 
community. He who, at this level, is regarded as morally responsible 
is called by the Law a mukallaf meaning ‘one who is charged with 

Now when a mukallaf acts in the light of the Law, either he 
‘obeys’ its injunctions or ‘disobeys’ and ‘rebels’ against it. It is a 
truism or even a tautology to say that in the former case the man is 
mufi‘, i.e., one who is obedient to God. But the important point is 
that, in Ibn ‘ ArabF s view, in the second case he is no less obedient to 
God than in the first. For even in the second case, the man acts as he 
does simply according to the dictates of his permanent archetype, 
which, as we know, is a direct manifestation of the Divine Will. 

Of course, when a man ‘disobeys’ God, there is no other way for 
Him than either forgiving him or punishing him. But the remarkable 
fact about this is that God, on His part, ‘obeys’ the man, and acts 
according to the dictates of his actions. The ‘obedience’ ( inqiyad ) 
occurs here, as Bali Effendi remarks, on both sides. And this, Ibn 
‘Arab! says, is the meaning of ‘religion’ {din) in the sense of islam 
( = inqiyad ‘obedience’) as well as in the sense of jaza ‘requital’. 

Religion, indeed, is ‘requital’, he says. When a man ‘obeys’ God, 
He requites him with ‘what pleases’ him, while when he ‘disobeys’, 
God requites him with ‘what displeases’ him. Requital with what is 
pleasing is called ‘reward’, and requital with what is displeasing or 

172 Sufism and Taoism 

painful is called ‘punishment’. Subjectively, there is naturally a 
serious difference between ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’, and the dif- 
ference is keenly felt by the man who obtains ‘reward’ and ‘punish- 
ment’ respectively. Objectively, however, there is no fundamental 
difference between the two. For in both cases, God is just acting in 
‘obedience’ to the requirement of the archetype. A certain 
archetype necessarily requires a certain action on the part of a man, 
and that action necessarily requires, on the part of God, either 
‘reward’ or ‘punishment’. 

Thus when a man obtains something good (i.e., 'reward’), he himself 
is the one who gives it to him. And when he obtains something bad 
(i.e., 'punishment’), it is no other than himself that gives it to him. 
Nay, he is the one who is bountiful ( mun'im ) to him, and he is the one 
who is his own chastiser ( mu‘ adhdhib ) . So let him praise only himself, 
and let him blame only himself. ‘And God possesses the irrefutable 
argument’ (VI, 149) in His Knowledge about men, because Know- 
ledge follows its objects. 

There is, however, a still deeper understanding of the problems of 
this kind, which is as follows. All the ‘possible’ things, in effect, have 
their root in non-existence. (What is usually regarded as their ‘exis- 
tence’) is nothing but the existence of the Absolute appearing in 
various forms of the modes of being peculiar to the ‘ possible’ things in 
themselves and in their very essences. And this will make you under- 
stand who is the one who really enjoys and who is the one who really 
suffers. (That is to say, he who is really pleased by the reward and 
really pained by the punishment is not the man, but the Absolute 
which manifests itself in the particular form of the man according to 
his archetype, which, again, is no other than a state of the Absolute 
itself.) You will also understand thereby what really is the consequ- 
ence of every state (or action) of the man. (That is to say, the reward 
or punishment, as the consequence of every action of the man is in 
reality a self-manifestation of the Absolute in a particular form 
determined by that action.) Properly speaking, any consequence (of 
an action) is simply ‘iqab which is to be understood in the (etymologi- 
cal) sense of ‘what follows or results’ (‘ aqaba ). ‘Iqab in this sense 
comprises both a good consequence and a bad consequence, except 
that in the conventional usage of Arabic, only a bad consequence is 
called ‘iqab (in the sense of ‘punishment’), while a good consequence 
is called thawab ‘reward’. 

If the true meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’ 
are what we have just seen, what, then, is the significance of God’s 
raising among men ‘apostles’ whose function is generally thought to 
be bidding people do good and avoid evil in order to attain happi- 
ness? It is to be expected that in the particular context of Ibn 
‘Arabi’s theory, the conception of ‘apostle’ ( rasul ) should turn out 
to be radically different from the ordinary one. 

Permanent A rche types 173 

Comparing the apostles to physicians, Ibn ‘Arab! explicates his 
idea about apostleship as follows: 28 

Know that, just as a physician is said to be a ‘servant of Nature’ 

( khadim al-(abi‘ah ), so the apostles and their successors are com- 
monly said to be the ‘servants of the Divine Command’, (i.e., It is 
generally held that the apostles are physicians of the souls, whose 
function it is to keep the souls in good health and, in case the souls 
happen to be ill, to bring them back to their normal state.) 

In reality, however, the apostles are servants of the ontological 
modes of the possible things (i.e., their real function is to ‘serve’, that 
is, to try to bring out exactly what is required by the essences of the 
possible things in their archetypal states). But this service of theirs is 
itself part of their own ontological modes ( ahwal ) which are peculiar 
to them in their state of archetypal subsistence. See how marvellous 
this is. 

Note, however, that the ‘servant’ to be sought after here, (whether 
a servant of Nature or a servant of an ontological mode of a possible 
thing) must remain within the boundaries which the object of his 
service (i.e., either a sick person or an ontological mode) determines, 
either by the actual state or by language, (i.e., A physician cures his 
patient either according to the observed bodily state of the patient or 
according to what the patient verbally asks for). 

A physician would be entitled to be called (unconditionally) a ‘ser- 
vant of Nature’ only if he consistently acted to help promote Nature, 
(but actually no physician is supposed to do such a thing, as will be 
evident from the following consideration). A physician (is usually 
called for in those cases in which) Nature has produced in the body of 
his patient a special state for which the patient is called ‘ill’ . Now if the 
physician in such a situation (unreservedly) ‘served’ Nature, the 
illness of the patient would thereby simply be increased. So (instead 
of helping it) he tries to repel and keep off Nature for the sake of 
health by producing in the patient another bodily state which is just 
the opposite of his present state, although, to be sure, ‘health’ itself 
belongs to Nature, too. 

Thus it is clear that the physician is not a ‘servant of Nature’ (i.e., he 
does not serve Nature consistently in all cases without distinction). 

He is only a ‘servant of Nature’ in the sense that he brings the body of 
his patient back to health by altering his present bodily state by 
means of Nature. He serves Nature in a very particular way, not in a 
general way. 

The physician must not serve and promote Nature in all circum- 
stances without discrimination. When, for example, Nature has pro- 
duced an unhealthy state like diarrhea, he must try to restrain the 
activity of Nature, and to produce a healthy state. But, since the 
healthy state thus produced is also part of Nature, he is, by produc- 
ing it, serving after all the same Nature. And this analogy elucidates 
the function of the apostle who is the physician of the souls. 



Sufism and Taoism | 

Thus the physician serves Nature and does not serve Nature. Like- 
wise, the apostles and their successors serve and do not serve the 
Absolute (i.e., they serve the Divine Command not in all its aspects, 
but only in its beneficial aspect). $ 

This means that the apostle is a servant of the Divine Command 
only, and not a servant of the Divine Will. The Divine Command 
does not necessarily coincide with the Will. On the contrary, there 
often occurs discrepancy between the two. For the Command is | 

issued regardless of whether it will be obeyed or not, that is, whether 
what is commanded will actually occur or not, while the Will is 
absolute, what is willed being of such a nature that it necessarily % 

occurs. In those cases in which there is discrepancy between the 
Command and the Will, the apostle serves the Command, not the 
Will. If he served the Will, the apostle, instead of trying to curb evil, ^ 

would rather positively promote the evil-doers, and he would not 
advise them to stop doing evil. But strangely enough, if the occurr- 
ence of ‘evil’, when it does actually occur, is due to the Will, the 
admonishing act of the apostle against it is also due to the Divine t 


In a similar way, the effect of a ‘miracle’ will also appear to be far 
less powerful than is commonly imagined. For no matter how many 
miracles may be performed, what is determined by the archetypes 
can never be altered. The apostles are possessed of a special 
spiritual power called himmah 29 which enables them to perform 5 

miracles. But whether they do exercise this supernatural faculty or | 

not, the result will ultimately be the same, because the actual course 
of events will never deviate from what has already been determined 
by the archetypes. 

The apostles know very well that when a miracle is performed in the 
presence of the (disbelieving) people, some of them turn believers on S 

the spot, while some others recognize it but do not show any assent to 
it, acting unjustly, haughtily, and out of envy. There are even some 
who class it as magic and hypnotism. All the apostles are aware of 
this, and know that no one becomes a believer except when God has 
illumined his heart by the Light of belief, and that, if the person does 
not look at (a miracle performed) with this light which is called 
‘belief’, the miracle is of no avail to him. This knowledge prevents 
them from exercising their himmah in search of miracles, because 
miracles do not have an effect uniformly on all the spectators and 
their hearts. 

To this refers the saying of God concerning the most perfect of the 
apostles and the most knowledgeable of all men: ‘Verily thou dost 
not guide aright whomever thou desirest to guide, but it is God who 
guides whomever He wishes.’ (XXVIII, 56) . . . In addition to this He 
says in the same place: ‘but He is best aware of those who are guided 

Permanent Archetypes 


aright' (XXVIII, 56), that is to say, of those who have imparted to 
God - through their own permanent archetypes, while still in the 
state of non-existence - the knowledge that they would be guided 
aright. All this because God has so decreed that the Knowledge 
should follow its object in every case, and a man who was a believer in 
the archetypal permanence and in the state of non-existence should 
come into existence exactly according to that fixed form: God knows 
of every man that he will come into existence in such-and-such a 
form. And this is why He says: ‘but He is best aware of those who are 
guided aright’, 30 

The gist of Ibn ‘ Arabi’s argument is given by al-Qashani in a more 
logical form, as follows : 31 

A perfect knowledge (possessed by the apostles) of the reality of the 
things necessarily requires that they should behave with humble 
modesty in the presence of God and that they should not display the 
power of disposing things at will nor exercise their himmah upon 
anything. For he who really knows the truth knows that nothing at all 
comes into being except that which has been in the Eternal Know- 
ledge. Everything that has been known (by the Absolute) to occur 
cannot but occur, and anything that has been known not to occur can 
never occur. 

The whole matter is thus reduced ultimately to a relation between an 
Agent who knows what is in potentiality in the recipient, and a 
recipient which does not receive except that which is in its essential 
and natural ‘preparedness’. And if such is the case, upon what is an 
apostle to exercise his himmah ? What is the use of his exercising the 
himmah ? For anything whose actual occurrence or non-occurrence is 
known from the very beginning can in no way be altered by his 
himmah. The himmah cannot even advance or retard the exact point 
of time which is assigned to the thing from eternity. 

Thus the recipient does not receive except that which the Agent 
knows from the beginning that it will receive, while the Agent, on His 
part, does nothing except that which the recipient essentially is to 
receive. This because the archetypes strictly require by themselves 
from eternity to eternity what will actually happen to them when they 
come out into existence, while the Agent-Knower knows only that 
(i.e., that which is determined by the archetypes). 

V The Mystery of Predestination 

As we have repeatedly pointed out in the preceding, the way in 
which each thing receives existence from the Absolute is strictly 
determined by its own ‘preparedness’. The determining power of 
the ‘preparedness’ ( isti‘dad ) is supreme and even the Absolute must 
follow what it requires . 32 

Now the thesis of the absoluteness of the determining power of 


Sufism and Taoism § 

the ‘preparedness’ is naturally and essentially connected with the 
problem of predestination. The problem of predestination was 
raised and discussed as something of a vital importance from the 
earliest period of Islam under the key-terms qada and qadar. Ibn 
‘Arab! takes up the same problem and discusses it from his particu- 
lar viewpoint in terms of the theory of the archetypes. 

Know that the ‘pre-determination’ (qada) is a decisive judgment 
(hukm, or decree) of God concerning the things. God’s decisive 
judgment concerning things is given in strict accordance with His 
Knowledge of the latter themselves and their properties. And God’s 
Knowledge about the things is based on what is given by the very 
essences of the things. 

And the ‘allotment’ (qadar) is the specification of the appointed time 
at which each of the things should actually occur in accordance with 
its archetypal state without any alteration. But the qada itself, when 
it decides upon the destiny of each thing, does so only in accordance 
with its archetype. And this is the mystery of the qadar. ... 

Thus, the Judge (hakim) who issues a decree turns out in reality to be | 

acting in obedience to the demand of the very thing upon which He 
makes the decision in accordance with the requirement of its essence. 

In this sense, the thing upon which the decision is made according to 
its essence determines the Judge so that He should decide upon it in 
strict accordance with what it requires. And, in fact, every ‘judge’ 
who makes a decision upon something becomes determined (lit.: 
decided) by the object on which he makes a decision as well as by the 
ground on which he makes the decision, be the ‘judge’ who he may 
(i.e., whether he be the Absolute or a human being ). 33 

Everything, as we already know, has its essential constitution 
irrevocably determined in the archetypal state of non-existence. 

God knows it from eternity as it essentially is. And on the basis of 
the requirement of this perfect Knowledge God makes a decisive 
judgment concerning the thing. And this judgment is the qada d 4 
The qadar specifies and determines further what has been 
decided by the qada . The specification is done in terms of time. In 
other words, every state to be actualized in a thing is determined by 
the qadar concretely as to the definite time at which it is to occur. 

The qada does not contain any time determinations. It is the qadar 
that assigns to every event its peculiar time. And once determined in 
this way, nothing can occur even a minute earlier or later than the 
assigned time. 

Al-Qashani makes an interesting remark on the relation between 
the qada and the qadar in reference to the Tradition. It is related 
that the Prophet once passed under a wall which was about to fall 
down. Somebody gave him warning against it and asked, ‘Do you 
flee from the qada ’ of God?’ To this the Prophet replied, ‘I flee from 
the qada’ to the qadarV The falling down of the wall may have been 

Permanent Archetypes 1 '' 

a matter already decided upon, i.e., qada . But, even if the falling 
down of the wall was in itself an absolutely inescapable thing, the 
question as to when it would actually occur was not part of the 
qada’ . So there was at least room for the Prophet to escape being 
crushed by the falling wall by having recourse to the qadar of the 

The relation between the qada ’ and the qadar has been described 
here in such a way that it will naturally suggest to our mind that the 
former precedes the latter. This description should not be regarded 
as final and ultimate, for there is a deeper aspect to the whole 

We have just said that the qadar is a ‘further’ specification of the 
qada ’ in terms of time. In reality, however, God determines the 
qada’ of a thing in accordance with His Knowledge, which, in its 
turn, follows in every detail the essential structure of the object of 
the Knowledge. And the object of the Knowledge is, as we have 
seen above, the permanent archetype of the thing. And most natur- 
ally, the specification of time - or, for that matter, all the possible 
specifications of the thing - is part of the archetype. 35 In this sense, 
the qadar itself is determined by the archetype. Or we might even 
say that the qadar is the permanent archetype. 36 

There is, however, a subtle difference between the two. The 
permanent archetype in itself is a Universal transcending the level 
of time; it is an intelligible in the Divine Consciousness. When a 
Universal is about to go into the state of actual existence and is 
about to be particularized in the form of an individual thing, it 
becomes first connected with a particular point of time and thereby 
becomes temporally specialized. An archetype in such a state is 
called qadar. It is, in other words, an archetype in a state where all 
preparations have been completed for being actualized as a con- 
crete existent. Since God, on His part, knows all the conditions of 
the archetypes, He knows also that such-and-such an archetype is in 
a fully prepared state for being actualized. And, based on this 
Knowledge, He judges that this archetype will be actualized as 
such-and-such a particular thing. This judgment or decree is the 
qada’. Thus we see that there is a certain respect in which the qadar , 
instead of being preceded by the qada’ , does precede the qada and 
determines it. 

However this may be, it is certain that qadar is an extremely 
delicate state in which an archetype is about to actualize itself in the 
form of a concretely existent thing. To know qadar, therefore, is to 
peep into the ineffable mystery of Being, for the whole secret of 
Being extending from God to the world is disclosed therein. Ibn 
‘Arab! remarks that ‘the mystery of qadar is one of the highest 
knowledges, which God grants only to (a small number of) men who 


Sufism and Taoism 

are privileged with a perfect mystical intuition’ . If a man happens to 
obtain the true knowledge of qadar, the knowledge surely brings 
him a perfect peace of mind and an intolerable pain at the same 
time . 37 The unusual peace of mind arises from the consciousness 
that everything in the world occurs as it has been determined from 
eternity. And whatever may happen to himself or others, he will be 
perfectly content with it. Instead of struggling in vain for obtaining 
what is not in his capacity, he will be happy with anything that is 
given him. He must be tormented, on the other hand, by an intense 
pain at the sight of all the so-called ‘injustices’, ‘evils’, and ‘suffer- 
ings’ that reign rampant around him, being keenly conscious that it 
is not in his ‘preparedness’ to remove them from the world. 
Ibn ‘Arab! ends this passage by expressing a deep admiration 
for the supreme dominion of the qadar over the entire world of 
Being . 38 

The reality of the qadar extends its sway over the Absolute Being (in 
the sense that the Absolute is decisively influenced by the ‘prepared- 
ness’ of each thing when the Absolute decides its qada’) as well as 
over the limited beings (in the sense that no being is given anything 
beyond what has been determined by its own archetype). Nothing 
can be more perfect than the qadar, nothing can be more powerful 
nor greater than it, because of the universality of its effect, sometimes 
extending to all things and sometimes limited to particular things. 

There is another passage in the Fusus, in which Ibn ‘Arab! pursues 
further the problem of the knowledge of the qadar. This time he 
attempts a classification of men into several degrees based on the 
extent to which they know about the qadar. 

As we have seen above, to know something about the qadar is 
nothing other than knowing something about the permanent 
archetypes. But how can man know the truth about the archetypes? 
The archetypes are a deep mystery, the true reality of which is 
known only to the Absolute, because it is the inner structure of the 
Divine Consciousness. 

Thus it comes about that the majority of people are simply 
ignorant of the archetypes, and consequently, of the qadar. These 
people constitute the lowest degree on the scale. They know 
nothing about the determining force of the archetypes, i.e., about 
the significance of the qada and qadar. Because of their ignorance, 
they ask and implore God to do for them this and that; they naively 
believe that by the power of prayer they can change the eternally 
fixed course of events. 

Higher than this degree is the degree of people who are aware of 
the unalterableness of the archetypal determinations. They do not 
ask for things against or beyond what they know is determined. 

Permanent Archetypes 


These people are restrained from asking (God) by their knowledge 
that God has already unalterably decided their qada’. So they are 
content with having prepared their places for accepting whatever will 
come from Him. They have already abandoned their egos and all 
their selfish motives . 39 

Among people of this kind there are some who know more in 
detail that the determining power of the qada’ and qadar is the 
determining power of the ‘preparedness’ of their own permanent 
archetypes. They know, so to speak, the inner structure of the qada ’ 
and qadar. These people constitute the third degree of men in terms 
of their knowledge about the mystery of Being. 

This kind of man knows that God’s Knowledge concerning every- 
thing about him completely coincides with what he was in the state of 
archetypal subsistence prior to his coming into existence. And he 
knows that God does not give him except the exact amount deter- 
mined by the Knowledge about himself with which his archetypal 
essence has furnished Him. Thus he knows the very origin of God’s 
Knowledge about him. 

There is no higher class among the people of God. They are the most 
‘unveiled’ of all men, because they know the mystery of the qadar .* 0 

But Ibn ‘Arab! divides this highest class further into two groups, 
higher and lower. The lower degree is represented by those who 
know the mystery of the qadar in a broad and general way. The 
higher degree is represented by those who know it in all its concrete 

In another place , 41 Ibn ‘Arab! explains the same distinction be- 
tween the higher and the lower degree of the highest class of ‘know- 
ers’ in terms of ‘preparedness’ and ‘receiving’ ( qabiil ). The higher 
people are those who come to know the ‘receiving’ by knowing first 
the ‘preparedness’ by the experience of ‘unveiling’ . Once you know 
your ‘preparedness’ itself in its integrity, you are in a position to 
look over from above the whole field of the ‘receiving’, and nothing 
of what you will be receiving (i.e., what will be happening to you) 
will be unknown to you any longer. You are, in other words, the 
master of your own destiny. In contrast to this, the lower people 
come to know their own ‘preparedness’ by experiencing first the 
‘receiving’. Only after taking cognizance of what actually has hap- 
pened to them do they realize that they have such-and-such a 
‘preparedness’ . So the knowledge they obtain of their destiny, being 
conditioned by what actually happens, is necessarily partial. 
Besides, as al-Qashani points out, the knowledge thus obtained is 
always liable to be mistaken because the process involves inference 
(istidlal) . 

Concerning this distinction within the higher degree Ibn ‘Arab! 
remarks : 42 

180 Sufism and Taoism 

He who knows his own qadar in concrete details is higher and more 
complete than the one who knows his qadar only in a broad and 
general way. For the former knows what is in the Knowledge of God 
concerning him. He obtains his knowledge in one of the two possible 
ways: either (1) by God’s instructing him according to the very 
knowledge about him which his archetypal essence has first furnished 
Him with, or (2) by his permanent archetype being directly revealed 
to him together with all the infinite states that unfold themselves from 
it. This kind of man is higher because his position in regard to his 
knowledge about himself is the same as that of God’s Knowledge 
about him, for both derive from one and the same source (i.e., his 
permanent archetype). 

This important passage may be clarified if we interpret it as 

Everything in the world is eternally and permanently determined 
by its own archetype. The inner structure or content of that 
archetype, however, is an impenetrable mystery because it is part of 
the Divine Consciousness. But there is only one small aperture, so 
to speak, through which man can have a peep into this unfathom- 
able mystery. That aperture is the self-consciousness of man. Very 
exceptionally, when the spiritual force of a man is unusually ele- 
vated in the experience of ‘unveiling’, he may be given a chance of 
witnessing directly the content of his own archetype. And in such a 
case, his knowledge about his own archetype is the same as God’s 
Knowledge about him, in the sense that both derive from one and 
the same source. And by knowing his own archetype, not externally 
but internally, he takes a peep at the great mystery of the qadar. 

However, this does not mean that the Knowledge of God and the 
knowledge of a highest ‘knower’ are exactly identical with each 
other in every respect. For the knowledge of a man about his own 
archetype is conditioned by the actual forms or states in which 
the archetype is manifested. Though he looks into the content of his 
archetype with an unusual penetration of insight through and 
beyond the actual forms it assumes, he has no access to the 
archetype as it was in the original state prior to existence. 

(It is true that there occurs in the experience of ‘unveiling’ 
identification of the human knowledge with God’s Knowledge), but 
if we consider this phenomenon from the side of the man, the whole 
matter turns out to be a special favor on the part of God who has 
prepared all this for him from eternity. And (the greatest wonder 
consists in the fact that) this special favor which God bestows upon 
him is itself part of the very content of his archetype. 

The man who experiences the ‘unveiling’ comes to know the whole 
content of his archetype when God lets him have a peep into it. But 
‘God lets him have a peep into it’ means only that God allows him to 
observe (with unusual clarity and penetration) the states of his 

Permanent Archetypes 181 

archetype (as actualized in existence). For it is not in the capacity of 
any creature at all - even in such a (privileged) state in which God 
allows him to have an insight into all the forms of his permanent 
archetype in the state in which it receives existence - to gain the same 
insight as God Himself into the archetypes in their state of non- 
existence, because the archetypes prior to existence are but essential 
relations having no definite form at all. 43 

From this we must conclude that although there is a certain respect 
in which a man’s knowledge about his archetype becomes identical 
with God’s Knowledge about it in that both derive from one and the 
same source, there is also a fundamental difference between the two 
in that the human knowledge about an archetype concerns it only in 
the state of existence while God’s Knowledge concerns it both 
before and after its existence. Furthermore, even this partial 
identification of the human knowledge with the Divine Knowledge 
is due to a special 1 concern’ of God with the particular man in whom 
it realizes. 

The only way possible by which man can hope to get this kind of 
insight into the archetypes is, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, the experi- 
ence of ‘unveiling’ . Apart from ‘unveiling’ nothing, not even Divine 
Revelation to prophets, can give a knowledge of the inner structure 
of the archetypes. But this does not mean that the experience of 
‘unveiling’ reveals the whole secret of this problem. Ibn ‘Arabi is 
very reserved concerning this point. He merely says that in 
extremely special cases, the people of ‘unveiling’ can come to know 
through their experience something of the mystery (ba‘d al-umur 
min dhalik ). 44 The true reality of the qadar in its entirety is the 
deepest of all secrets into which God alone can penetrate, because it 
concerns the very delicate ontological moments at which the Divine 
act of ‘creation’ comes into actual relation with its objects. And in 
this depth, ‘There can be no “immediate tasting” ( dhawq ), no 
self-manifestation, no “unveiling” except for God alone’. 

Compared with Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Qashani is extremely daring in that 
he admits straightforwardly that in the case of the mystics of the 
highest degree there is even the possibility of knowing the reality of 
the qadar in an absolute way. 

There is in these words of our Master a clear suggestion that it is not 
impossible nor forbidden for a man to try to have an insight (into the 
secret of the qadar) through the experience of ‘unveiling’ and ‘illumi- 
nation’ (tajalli) It is possible for God to let anybody He likes gain 
an insight into ‘something’ of the mystery in a partial way. 

Is it possible for a man to gain an unconditional insight into it? No, he 
can never do that in so far as he is a man. However, when a 
man becomes annihilated (i.e., in the mystical experience of 

182 Sufism and Taoism 

‘self-annihilation’ fana’) and loses his name and his personal identity 
to such a degree that there remains in him no trace of his I-ness and 
his own essence, thus losing himself completely, then it is possible 
that he gains an insight into the Reality through the Reality in so far 
as he himself is the Reality. Of course such a thing never happens 
except to a man of the most perfect ‘preparedness ’. 46 

A man who is allowed to have an insight into the depth of the qadar 
through ‘immediate tasting’ and ‘unveiling’, whether the insight he 
gains be partial (as Ibn ‘Arabi suggests) or total and absolute (as 
al-Qashani states), is not an ordinary man. We are in the presence of 
a Perfect Man, a problem with which we shall be occupied in 
Chapter XV of the present work. 

VI The Mutual ‘Constraint’ between God and the World 

We have seen in the preceding that, in the world-view of Ibn ‘Arabi, 
the power of the ‘preparedness’ belonging to each of the archetypes 
is absolutely supreme, so supreme that no force, not even God 
Himself, can reduce it. Indeed, it is impossible for God even to 
desire to change its fixed form. 

Ibn ‘Arabi describes this fact in terms of the concept of reciprocal 
taskhir between the Absolute and the world. The word taskhir , or its 
verbal form sakhkhara, means in ordinary Arabic, in the field of 
human relations, that a person endowed with a strong power 
humbles and overwhelms another and constrains the latter to do 
whatever he wants him to do. Thus here again Ibn ‘Arab! uses an 
extremely daring expression which might look simply blasphemous 
to common sense, and states that as the Absolute ‘constrains’ the 
world, so the world, on its part, ‘constrains’ the Absolute. 

The idea that God governs the world, things and men, with His 
absolute power and ‘constrains’ everything to do whatever He 
wants it to do is something natural in Semitic monotheism and does 
not raise any difficulties; but its reverse, i.e., the idea that the world 
‘constrains’ God, is beyond the comprehension of common sense. 
This idea is understandable and acceptable only to those who know 
thoroughly the basic structure of Ibn ‘ Arabi’s philosophy and who, 
therefore, are able to see what he really means by this apparently 
blasphemous expression. To put it in a nutshell, he means that each 
thing determines existence in a particular way as required by its own 
‘preparedness’, or that the self-manifestation of the Absolute is 
actualized in each thing in a definite form in strict accordance with 
the requirement of the archetype. Thus formulated, the idea turns 
out to be one which is already quite familiar to us. But this does not 
mean that the idea of taskhir discloses nothing new to our eyes. In 

Permanent Archetypes 183 

fact the ontological core itself of Ibn ‘Arabi’s entire philosophizing 
is surprisingly simple and solidly immovable; it is the different 
angles from which he considers it that constantly move and change, 
revealing at every step a new aspect of the core. Every new angle 
discloses some unexpected aspect of it. As he goes on changing his 
perspective, his philosophy becomes molded into a definite form. 
This process itself is, in short, his philosophy. The concept of taskhir 
is one of those crucial perspectives. 

As we have already observed, there are, in Ibn ‘Arabi’s view, a 
number of degrees distinguishable among the beings of the world. 
And the general rule is that a higher order exercises taskhir over a 
lower order. And this not only applies to the relation between 
genera and species, but the same phenomenon occurs even among 
members of one and the same species. A man, for example, subju- 
gates and subordinates another. 

This is made possible in the particular case of man by the fact that 
man has two different aspects: (1) ‘humanity’ (insaniyah) and (2) 
‘animality’ (hayawaniyah) . In the first aspect, man is ‘perfect’ 
( kamil ), and the Arabic word for man in this sense is insan. The 
second aspect represents the material and animal side of man, and 
the Arabic word for man in this sense is bashar. 41 And the attribute 
proper to this aspect of man is ‘imperfect’ or ‘defective’ ( naqi $ ). 

In the first aspect, all men are equal to each other; there is no 
difference of orders or degrees among them, and, therefore, taskhir 
cannot occur on this level. In the second aspect, on the contrary, 
there is actually the ‘higher’ -‘lower’ relation among men in terms of 
wealth, rank, dignity, intelligence, etc. Naturally, on this level, a 
‘higher’ man subjugates a ‘lower’ man. 48 To this we must add that 
the ‘animality’ of man and the ‘animality’ of the animals, though 
both are the same qua ‘animality’, are different in rank, the former 
being superior to the latter. Thus the ‘animality’ of man subjugates 
and constrains the ‘animality’ of the animals. 

The animality of man maintains its control over the animality of the 
animals, because, for one thing, God has made the latter naturally 
subservient to the former, but mainly because animal in its ontologi- 
cal root (a$/) is non-animal. This is why animal surpasses man in the 
amount of taskhir it suffers. For a non-animal (i.e., inanimate, which 
happens to be the ontological root of animal) possesses no will; it is 
completely at the mercy of one who controls it at will . 49 

Thus Ibn ‘Arabi shows at the outset the descending order of 
taskhir. man -» animal — »• non-animal. Animal vis-a-vis man dis- 
closes its ontological ‘root’ which is non-animal. Thus, although 
man himself is also an animal, his animality is superior to the 


Sufism and Taoism 

animality of animal, because non-human animal in the presence of 
human animal stands naked, so to speak, in its non-animal root, and 
behaves toward the latter as a non-animal devoid of will-power. But 
an animal taken as a full-fledged animal, and not in its non-animal 
root, is quite different from this. 

But animal (not in its root but as an actual being) has will and acts in 
pursuit of aims. So it comes about that an animal displays obstinate 
refusal to obey in some cases when one tries to subjugate it. If the 
animal in question happens to possess the power to manifest this 
refusal, it does manifest it in the form of restiveness. But if it happens 
to lack that power or if what a man wants it to do happens to coincide 
with what it wants to do, then the animal obeys with docility the will 
of the man. 

Similarly a man standing in the same position (as animal vis-a-vis 
man) to another man acts in obedience to the will of the latter 
because of something - wealth, for instance - by which God has 
raised the rank of the latter over the former. He acts this way because 
he wishes to obtain (part of) the wealth, which in certain cases is 
called ‘wages’ . To this refers the Qoranic verse: ‘And We have raised 
some of the people above others by degrees so that they might force 
one another to servitude’ (XLIII, 32). If (of two men) one is subju- 
gated and constrained by the other who is his equal (as a member of 
the same species ‘man’), it is only because of his ‘animality’, not 
‘humanity’, for two equals qua equals remain opposed to each other 
(and there can be no taskhir between them). Thus the higher of the 
two in terms of wealth or social status subjugates the lower, acting 
thereby on the basis of his ‘humanity’, while the lower is subjugated 
by the former either from fear or covetousness, acting on the basis of 
his ‘animality’, not ‘humanity’. For no one can subjugate anybody 
who is equal to him in every respect. Do you not see how the beasts 
(that are so docilely subjugated by men) show among themselves a 
fierce and determined opposition to each other because they are 

This is why God says: ‘And We have raised some of the people above 
others by degrees’, . . . and taskhir occurs precisely because of these 
different degrees. 50 

Ibn ‘ ArabI distinguishes between two kinds of taskhir. One of them 
is what has just been described. It is called ‘constraining by will’ 
(taskhir bi-al-iradah ). It refers to a descending order of taskhir, in 
which a higher being constrains a lower, and which is quite a natural 
phenomenon observable everywhere in the world of Being. 

In contrast to this, the second is an ascending order of taskhir, in 
which a lower being subjugates and constrains a higher being. In this 
phenomenon, ‘will’ ( iradah ) has no part to play. A lower being does 
not and can not constrain a higher one by exercising his will. Rather 
the higher being is constrained by the very natural state in which the 
lower being is found. It is therefore called ‘constraining by the state 

Permanent Archetypes 


(or situation)’ (taskhir bi-al-hal ). Here the ‘constraining’ occurs by 
the mere fact that the lower and the higher happen to be in a certain 
relationship with each other. The difference between the two kinds 
of taskhir is explained by Ibn ‘Arabi in the following way : 51 

The taskhir is of two kinds. The first is a taskhir which occurs by the 
will of the ‘constrained ( musakhkhir ) who subdues by force the 
‘constrained’ (musakhkhar) . This is exemplified by the taskhir exer- 
cised by a master over his slave, though both are equal in ‘humanity’ . 
Likewise the taskhir exercised by a Sultan over his subjects in spite of 
the fact that the latter are equal to him as far as their ‘humanity’ is 
concerned. The Sultan constrains them by virtue of his rank. 

The second kind is the taskhir by the ‘state’ or ‘situation’, like the 
taskhir exercised by the subjects over their king who is charged with 
the task of taking care of them, e.g., defending and protecting them, 
fighting the enemies who attack them, and preserving their wealth 
and their lives, etc. In all these things, which are the taskhir by the 
‘state’, the subjects do constrain their sovereign. 52 In reality, how- 
ever, this should be called taskhir of the ‘position’ (martabah ) , 53 
because it is the ‘position’ that compels the king to act in that way. 

Some kings (just ignore this and) act only for their own selfish 
purposes. But there are some who are aware that they are being 
constrained by their subjects because of their ‘position’ . The kings of 
this latter kind know rightly how to estimate their subjects. And God 
requites them for this with the reward worthy to be given only to 
those who really know the truth of the matter. The reward which such 
people obtain is for God alone to give because of His being involved 
personally in the affairs of His servants. Thus, in this sense, the whole 
world acts by its very ‘state’ as a ‘constrained who constrains the One 
who is impossible (on the level of common sense) to be called ‘con- 
strained’. This is the meaning of God’s saying: ‘Every day He is in 
some affair’ (LV, 29). 

This makes clear that the proposition: ‘the Absolute is “con- 
strained” by the creatures’ - a proposition which is unimaginable on 
the level of common sense - has no other meaning for Ibn ‘ Arab! 
than that the Absolute perpetually manifests itself in the affairs 
(shu’un, i.e., various states and acts) of the creatures and confers 
upon them all kinds of properties in accordance with the require- 
ments of their ‘preparedness’. According to his interpretation, the 
Qoranic verse: ‘Every day He is in some affair’ refers to this fact, 
meaning as it does, ‘every day (i.e., perpetually) the Divine “He” 
(i.e., He-ness) is manifesting itself in this or that mode of being in 
the creatures, according to the requirement of the “preparedness” 
of each’. 

Thus, from whatever angle he may start, Ibn ‘Arabi ultimately 
comes back to the central concept of ‘self-manifestation’. And the 


Sufism and Taoism 

problem of taskhir in this context is reduced to that of the self- 
manifestation of the Absolute being determined variously in accor- 
dance with the natural capacities of the individual existents. We 
may express the same thing, still within the framework of Ibn 
‘Arabi’s world-view, by saying that the permanent archetypes, or 
the eternal potentialities, must obey the strictly necessary and 
unchangeable laws laid down by themselves, when they become 
actualized in individual things. Taskhir is after all the supreme 
power exercised by the ‘preparedness’ of each thing. 

God’s self-manifestation varies according to the ‘preparedness’ of 
each individual locus. Junayd 54 was asked once about the mystical 
knowledge ( ma'rifah ) of God and the ‘knower’ (‘ arif ). He replied. 
‘The color of water is the color of its vessel’ . This is, indeed an answer 
which hits the mark, for it describes the matter as it really is. ss 

Water has no color of its own; it is rather colored by the color of 
the vessel which contains it. This metaphor implies that the Abso- 
lute has no particular form to which we might point as the Form of 
the Absolute. The truth of the matter is that the Absolute manifests 
itself in infinitely various forms according to the particularities of 
the recipients. And the receptive power of the latter plays a decisive 
role in ‘coloring’ the originally ‘colorless’ Absolute. The Divine 
Name, the ‘Last’ ( al-dkhir ) expresses this aspect of the Absolute. 
The ‘Last’, i.e., One whose place is behind all, refers to that particu- 
lar aspect of the Absolute in which it ‘follows’ the inborn capacity 
(or ‘preparedness’) of everything. Taken in this sense, the taskhir of 
God by the creatures is something quite natural, particularly in the 
philosophical system of Ibn ‘Arabl. But it is not for everybody to 
understand the problem in this way. 

A man who has but ‘a feeble intellect’, Ibn ‘Arabi says, cannot 
tolerate the dictum that God is ‘ constrained’ . Such a man misunder- 
stands the concept of the Omnipotence of God, and sets against this 
dictum another dictum that God can do everything, even impossible 
things. And by this he imagines that he has ‘purified’ ( tanzih ) God 
from weakness and disability. 

Some of the thinkers whose intellect is feeble, being misled by the 
conviction that God is able to do whatever He wants to do, have come 
to declare it possible for God to do even those things that flatly 
contradict Wisdom and the real state of things. 56 

VII Gifts of God 

We know already that the self-manifestation of the Absolute 
means, among other things, bestowal of Being. Being or existence is 

Permanent Archetypes 187 

in this sense a precious gift bestowed by God upon all beings. Ibn 
‘Arab! discusses the nature of the archetypes from this particular 
point of view and emphasizes here again the decisive part played by 
them. In fact, the theory of the Divine gifts occupies a considerably 
important place in his philosophy, and he develops in the Fusus a 
very detailed analysis of this problem. 

He begins by classifying the gifts of the Absolute. 57 

Know that the Divine gifts and favors, which appear in this world of 
Becoming through the medium of men or without their medium, are 
of two kinds: (1) ‘essential gifts’ (‘atdyd dhatiyah) and (2) 'gifts 
given through the Names f atdyd asmaiyah). The distinction be- 
tween these two kinds is clearly discerned by the people of ‘immedi- 
ate tasting’. 

There is also (another way of classifying the Divine gifts, according to 
which three kinds of gifts are distinguished:) (1) gifts that are given in 
response to an act of asking (on the part of the creatures) concerning 
some particular thing. This occurs when, for example, a man says, ‘O 
my Lord, give me such-and-such a thing!’ The man specifies a par- 
ticular thing which he desires; he does not think of anything else. (2) 
Gifts that are given in response to a non-specified asking. This occurs 
when a man says without any specification, ‘(My Lord,) give me what 
Thou knowest to be beneficial to any part of my being, whether 
spiritual or physical. (3) Gifts that are given independently of any act 
of asking (on the part of the creatures), whether the gifts in question 
be ‘essential’ or ‘through the Names’. 

The theory of the Divine gifts that underlies the first of these two 
classifications is nothing else than the theory of the self- 
manifestation of the Absolute considered from a somewhat new 
point of view. The Essence ( dhat ) of the Absolute, as we saw above 
in dealing with the concept of ontological ‘breathing’, pervades and 
runs through all beings. From the specific point of view of the 
present chapter, this means that the Absolute gives its own Essence, 
as it were, as a gift to all beings. Likewise, the Attributes (or Names) 
of the Absolute are manifested in the attributes of all beings. This 
would mean that the Absolute has given its Attributes as gifts to the 
creaturely world. It is to be remarked that both these gifts corres- 
pond to the (3) of the second classification mentioned above. 

These gratuitous gifts are given by God to all, regardless of whether 
they ask for them or not. In common-sense understanding, a gift is 
generally given by God when someone asks Him to give it to him. In 
the second classification given above, Ibn ‘Arab! divides the ‘asking’ 
into specified and non-specified. 

Whether in a specified form or in a non-specified form, however, 
when a man asks anything of God, he is completely under the sway 


Sufism and Taoism 

of his own ‘preparedness’ . What he obtains as a result of his asking is 
determined by his ‘preparedness’. Even the fact itself that he asks 
for anything is determined by his ‘preparedness’. 

If everything is predetermined in this way, and if nothing at all can 
ever happen except that which has been predetermined, why do 
people ask anything of God? In answering this question, Ibn ‘ Arabi 
divides ‘those who ask’ ( sa’ilun ) into two categories, and says: 58 

The first category is formed by those who are urged to ask by their 
natural impatience, for man is by nature ‘very impatient’ (XVII, 11). 

The second are those who feel urged to ask because they know that 
there are in the hands of God certain things which are predetermined 
in such a way that they shall not be obtained unless asked for. A man 
of this sort thinks, ‘It may be that the particular thing which we ask 
God to give happens to belong to this kind’ . His asking, in this case, is 
a kind of precaution taken for any possibility in the matter. (He takes 
such an attitude) because he knows neither what is in the Knowledge 
of God nor what the ‘preparedness’ (i.e., his own ‘preparedness’ and 
that of the thing he is asking for) will cause him to receive. For it is 
extremely difficult to know concerning every single moment what the 
‘preparedness’ of an individual will give him in that very fraction of 
time. Besides, if the asking itself were not given by the ‘prepared- 
ness’, he would not even ask for anything. Those, of the people of the 
(constant) ‘presence’ (with God), 59 who cannot attain to such a 
(comprehensive) knowledge of their own ‘preparedness’, can at least 
attain to the point at which they obtain a knowledge of their ‘pre- 
paredness’ at every present moment. For due to their (constant) 
‘presence’, they know what the Absolute has just given them at that 
moment, being well aware at the same time that they have received 
precisely what they have received because of their ‘preparedness’. 
These people are subdivided into two classes: 60 ( 1) those who obtain 
knowledge about their own ‘preparedness’ judging by what they have 
received, and (2) those who know on the basis of (their knowledge 
of) their own ‘preparedness’ what they are going to receive. And this 
last represents the most perfect knowledge conceivable of the ‘pre- 
paredness’ within this class of people. 

To this class also belong those who ask, not because of their natural 
impatience (the first category) nor because of the possibility (of the 
thing they want being dependent upon their asking (the second 
category), but who ask simply in obedience to God’s Command as 
expressed by His words: ‘Call upon Me, and I shall respond to you’ 
(XL, 60). 

Such a man is a typical ‘servant’. He who asks in this way has no 
personal intention toward anything, specified or non-specified. His 
sole concern is to act in obedience to whatever his Master commands 
him to do. So if the objective situation (coming from the archetype) 
demands asking, he does ask out of sheer piety, but if it demands him 
to leave everything to God’s care and to keep silence, he does keep 
silence. Thus, Job and others (like him) were made to endure bitter 

Permanent Archetypes 189 

trials, but they did not ask God to remove the sufferings with which 
He tried them. But later, when the situation demanded them to ask, 
(they asked God,) and God did remove their sufferings from them. 

Thus there are recognizable three categories of ‘those who ask’, 
each category being characterized by a particular motive from 
which they ask and by a particular way of asking. But whatever the 
motive and whatever the way, there seems to be practically no open 
space for the act itself of asking to be effective. For as we observe at 
the outset, everything is determined from eternity and the act of 
asking cannot possibly produce even a slight change in the strictly 
predetermined course of events. Indeed, man’s asking for some 
‘gift’ from God and God’s granting him his wish are also predeter- 
mined. As Ibn ‘Arabi says: 61 

Whether the request is immediately complied with or put off depends 
upon the qadar which God Himself has decided from eternity. 62 If the 
asking occurs exactly at its determined time, God responds to it 
immediately, but in case its determined time is to come later, whether 
in this world or in the Hereafter, God’s compliance with the request is 
also deferred. Note that by compliance (or response) here I do not 
mean the verbal response consisting in God’s saying, ‘Here I am!’ 63 

What we have just dealt with concerns the situation in which man 
positively asks of God something, in a specified or non-specified 
way. And we have noticed the supreme determining power exer- 
cised by the ‘preparedness’ and qadar in such cases. 

We turn now to the problem of gifts that are given independently 
of any positive act of asking on the part of man. Since this represents 
the self- manifestation of the Absolute in its typical form, it will be 
clear even without any further explanation that the nature of the 
particular thing that receives a gift of this kind (i.e., the nature of the 
locus of the self-manifestation) exercises a decisive influence upon 
the whole process. Our main concern will be, therefore, with an 
analysis of the way Ibn ‘Arabi deals with the problem on the level of 
theoretical thinking. 

He begins by pointing out that the word ‘asking’ in this particular 
case means specifically verbal asking. Otherwise, everything is ‘ask- 
ing’ in some form or another in a broad sense. So by the phrase: 
‘gifts that are not due to asking’, he simply means, he says, those 
gifts that are given independently of verbal asking. 

Non-verbal ‘asking’ is divided into two kinds: (1) ‘asking by 
situation’ ( su’al bi-al-hal ), and (2) ‘asking by preparedness’ ( su’al 
bi-al-istV dad ). Of these two kinds Affifi gives the following explana- 
tion. 64 The ‘asking by situation’ is reducible to the second type of 
non-verbal asking, because the objective situation of a thing or a 
person asking for something depends ultimately on the nature of the 


Sufism and Taoism 

‘preparedness’ of that thing or person. When a man is ill, for 
example, his situation or state ‘asks for’ something (e.g., being 
cured), but the illness itself is due to the ‘preparedness’ of that 
particular man. The ‘asking by preparedness’ concerns this or that 
attribute pertaining to existence, which the very nature of each 
existent asks for. This is the only kind of ‘asking’ to which the 
Absolute responds in the real sense of the word. Thus if something 
has been predetermined from eternity that it should be such-and- 
such, and if the nature of that thing actually demands it as it has been 
predetermined, the demand is immediately satisfied. Everything 
that happens in this world of Being happens only in this way. 

To this Affifi adds the remark that this puts the determinist 
position of Ibn ‘ Arabi beyond all doubt. Only it is not a mechanical 
material determinism but is rather close, he says, to the Leibnizian 
concept of pre-established harmony. 

However this may be, Ibn ‘Arab! himself explains his position in 
his peculiar way. Here follows what he says about this problem. 65 

As regards (gifts) that are not due to asking, it is to be remarked that I 
mean by ‘asking’ here only the verbal expression of a wish. For 
properly speaking, nothing can do without ‘asking’ in some form or 
other, whether by language or situation or ‘preparedness’. (The 
‘asking by situation’ may be understood by the following analogy .) 66 
An unconditioned praise of God is not possible except in a verbal 
form. As to its inner meaning, (praise of God) is necessarily con- 
ditioned by the situation which urges you to praise Him. And (the 
situation) is that which conditions you (and determines your praise) 
through a Name denoting an action or a Name denoting ‘puri- 
fication’. As to the ‘preparedness’, man is not (ordinarily) aware of 
it, he is only aware of the situation, for he is always conscious of the 
motive (from which he praises God), and that motive is precisely 
(what I mean by) ‘situation’. Thus ‘preparedness’ is the most con- 
cealed of all (grounds of) ‘asking’. 

Let us first elucidate what is exactly meant by the analogy of 
‘praising’. Man praises God (in Arabic) by saying verbally al-hamd 
li-Allah (i.e., ‘praise be to God!’). 67 Everybody uses the same for- 
mula. The formula itself in its verbal form remains always uncon- 
ditioned. But if we go into the psychology of those who cry out 
al-hamd li-Allah! and analyze it in each particular case, the person 
A, for example, is thinking of his own bodily state of health and says 
al-hamd li-Allah as an effusion of his thankfulness for his health, 68 
while the person B praises God by the same formula because he is 
keenly conscious of the greatness and eternity of 69 God. Thus the 
motive, or the concrete situation, which drives man to use the same 
formula differs from case to case. This particular motivating situa- 
tion is called hal, ‘situation’, or ‘state’. 

Permanent Archetypes 191 

Now if we transpose this relation between the varying motives 
and the use of the same formula to the context of Divine gifts, we 
can easily grasp the basic structure of the latter. Everything in the 
world is always ‘asking’ of the Absolute an ontological ‘gift’ accord- 
ing to the requirement of its own ‘preparedness’ . This general form 
or pattern is everywhere the same. However, if we take each single 
unit of time and analyze minutely its content, we find that the 
‘asking’ assumes at every moment a unique form according to 
the concrete situation peculiar to that particular moment. This is 
the requirement of the ‘situation’. 

The requirements of the ‘situations’, therefore, are concrete 
details within the ‘preparedness’ , and are ultimately reducible to the 
latter. Subjectively, however, i.e., from the standpoint of a particu- 
lar man, he is clearly conscious of his own ‘situation’, while he is 
ordinarily unconscious of his ‘preparedness’. A sick man, for 
instance, asks for health because he feels pain. He is conscious of the 
motive from which he is making urgent supplication for health. But 
he is not conscious of the ‘preparedness’ which concerns his very 
existence and which dominates everything about himself. 

The ‘preparedness’ for ordinary men is after all an insoluble 
mystery. So the ‘asking by preparedness’, although it is the most 
powerful of the above-mentioned three kinds of ‘asking’, turns out 
to be the ‘most concealed’ of all. 

Reference has been made to the close relation that exists between 
the theory of ‘gifts’ and the theory of self-manifestation. In fact both 
are, as we have observed above, but one thing considered from two 
different perspectives. I would like to bring the present section to a 
close by discussing a particular point which emerges when we put 
these two perspectives together in one place. 

At the outset of this section we saw Ibn ‘Arabi dividing the ‘gifts’ 
into two major classes: ( 1) essential gifts and (2) gifts given through 
the Names. As to the first of these two classes, the word ‘essential’ 
(dhatiyah) itself will be enough to suggest that it has something to do 
with the self-manifestation of the Essence ( dhat ). 

In effect, ‘the essential gifts’ are, from the viewpoint of tajalli , a 
self-manifestation of the Divine Essence. It is to be noticed, how- 
ever, that it is a particular kind of essential self-manifestation which 
is designated by the term ‘holy emanation’. It is not what is desig- 
nated by the term ‘the most holy emanation’. 70 Ibn ‘Arab! is evi- 
dently thinking of this distinction when he says: 71 

Self-manifestation does not occur from the Essence except in the 
particular form determined by the locus in which it (the Essence) is 
manifested. No other way of (essential self-manifestation) is poss- 
ible. So the locus sees nothing else than its own form as reflected in 


Sufism and Taoism 

the mirror of the Absolute. It never sees the Absolute itself. It is 
utterly impossible for it to see the Absolute although it is conscious 
that it is perceiving its own form in no other (place) than (the mirror 
of) the Absolute. 

The intended meaning of this passage is explicated by al-Qashani in 
the following way : 72 

There can be no self-manifestation coming from the pure attribute- 
less Essence, because the Essence in its attributeless aspect does not 
manifest itself to anybody (or anything). Indeed, that which manif- 
ests itself is the Essence in its aspect of Mercifulness ( rahmaniyah ) 73 
. . . , while the Essence qua Essence does not make self- 
manifestation except to itself. Toward the creatures, the self- 
manifestation is done exclusively according to the ‘p re P are dness’ of 
the locus in each case. 

And this kind of self-manifestation is, as Bali Efendi rightly 
remarks, nothing other than the ‘holy emanation’. It is the self- 
manifestation of the Absolute, the direct source of which is the 
Presence (i.e., ontological level) of the all-comprehensive Name 
(which comprises all the Names or Attributes gathered together 
into a unity). 

Bali Efendi, in the same place, explains with utmost lucidity the 
relation between this ‘holy emanation’ and the ‘essential gifts’ and 
‘the gifts given through the Names’: 

The self-manifestation whose source is the Essence and which takes a 
particular form according to the form of its locus is the ‘holy emana- 
tion’. (This latter is divided into two kinds). 

(1) When the locus is of such a nature that it receives the self- 
manifestation of the Essence from the Presence of the comprehen- 
sive Name, the Essence manifests itself (in that locus) directly from 
the Presence of the comprehensive unity of all Names. This kind of 
self-manifestation is called ‘Divine 74 self-manifestation’, and the 
result of it are the ‘essential gifts’. 

(2) But when the (locus) is of such a nature that it receives the 
self-manifestation of the Essence from the particular Presence of one 
particular Name, the Essence manifests itself from that particular 
Presence. This is what is called the ‘self-manifestation through an 
Attribute or a Name’ , and there result from it the ‘gifts given through 
the Names’. 


1. See Chapter IX on Divine Mercy. 

2. Fus., p. 114/102. 


Permanent Archetypes 

3. The point will be discussed later under III of the present chapter. 

4. Fus., p. 63/76. 

5. ibid. 

6. Insha’ al-Dawa’ir, ed. Nyberg, pp. 16-17. 

7. The first thing is the Absolute, the second is the world, and the third in the order of 
description is the archetype. 

8. op. cit., p. 19. 

9. The English word ‘eternal’ in this context must always be strictly understood in 
the sense of ‘eternal a parte ante' . The dictum: ‘the world is eternal’ means, therefore, 
that ‘the world has no temporal beginning’, which would seem flatly to contradict the 
Qoranic teaching of the ‘creation’ of the world. 

10. ‘Ibn ‘ Arabi upheld the thesis of the eternity of the world ( qidam al-'alam) with 
no less definiteness than the Peripatetic Philosophers’ - Affifi, Fus., Com., p. 314- 

11. Fus., p. 263/211. 

12. Fus., p. 16/51. 

13. The Attributes dealt with here are only those that are analogically common to 
the Absolute and the creatures. The Attributes like Eternity (a parte ante) and 
Eternity (a parte post) are naturally excluded from consideration, because they are 
never actualized in the creaturely world. 

14. I rea d:fa-hiya bafinah la tazul ‘an al-wujud al-ghaybiy . The last word in the Affifi 
edition is al-‘ayniy, ‘individual and concrete’. What Ibn ‘Arabi means is clearly that 
the Universals, even when they are actualized in the concrete things, remain in their 
original state of being ‘interior’. 

15. p. 16. 

16. pp. 16-17/51-52. 

17. pp. 16-17/51-52. 

18. Fus., PP- 17-18/52-53. 

19. Fus., 43/67. 

20. p. 43. 

21. The first term hadith, grammatically an active form, represents the thing as 
something ‘coming into temporal existence’, while the second, muhdath, which is a 
passive form, represents it as something ‘which has been brought into temporal 

22. Fus., P- 18/53. 

23. Fus., P- 18/53. 


Sufism and Taoism 

24. Fun., pp. 75-76/82. 

25. Fay., pp. 76-77/83. 

26. Fay., pp. 157-158/128. 

27. Fay., pp. 104-105/95-96. 

28. Fay., pp. 107-108/97-98. 

29. For details about himmah see Chapter XVII. 

30. Fay., pp. 159-160/130-1. 

31. p. 160. 

32. This conception which might strike common sense as blasphemous will be found 
to be not at all blasphemous if one but reflects that the ‘preparedness’ of a thing which 
is said to exercise such a tremendous power is after all nothing but a particular 
ontological mode of the Absolute. One must remember that, in Ibn ‘ Arabi’s thought, 
the whole thing is ultimately an inner drama which is eternally enacted within the 
Absolute itself. All the other seemingly ‘blasphemous’ expressions which we are 
going to encounter presently like ‘God obeys the creatures’, ‘The world forces God 
to compulsory service etc., must be understood in terms of this basic framework. 

33. Fun., pp. 161-162/131-132. 

34. So there is practically no positive part played by the Absolute in this process 
except that the archetypes themselves are the manifested forms of the ontological 
modes of the Absolute. 

35. Fun., PP- 162-163/132. 

36. In effect, al-Qashanl in a passage of his commentary simply identifies the qadar 
with the archetype, cf. p. 163. 

37. Fun., P- 163/132. 

38. Fun., p- 163/132-133. 

39. Fun., P- 30/60. 

40. Fun., pp. 30-31/60. 

41. p. 42/67. 

42. Fun., p. 31-32/60-61. 

43. Fun., P- 32/61. 

44. Fus . , pp. 165-166/133-134. 

45. Here the word tajalli, which usually means the self-manifestation of the Abso- 
lute, is used to designate the reverse side of this phenomenon, i.e., the same tajalli as 
reflected in the individual consciousness of a mystic. 

L i 

Permanent Archetypes 

46. p. 167. 

47. usually translated as ‘mortal’. 

48. For the explanation just given I am indebted to Affifi, Fun., Com., p. 286. 

49. Fun., P- 243/192-193. 

50. Fun., p. 244/193-194. 

51. ibid. 

52. In the same way, a child exercises taskhir with his ‘state’ over his parents. 

53. because, properly speaking, what ‘constrains’ the king is not so much the ‘state’ 
of his subjects as the ‘position’ of kingship. 

54. Junayd (d. 910 A.D.), one of the greatest names in the early phase of the 
historical development of Sufism. 

55. Fun., P- 280/225. 

56. Fun., P- 42/67. 

57. Fun., P- 27/58. 

58. Fun., P- 28/59. 

59. The people of the presence ( ahl al-hudur), al-Qashani says, are ‘those who see 
whatever happens to them as coming from God, whether it (actually) occurs through 
others or through themselves, and who do not recognize anything other than God as 
the cause of any effect or anything existent.’ - p. 29. 

60. This problem has been dealt with earlier in (V) of the present chapter. 

61. Fun., P- 29/60. 

62. This corresponds to the Qoranic conception that everything has a ‘clearly stated 
term’ ( ajal musamma). 

63. Whenever a man calls upon God in supplication, God responds by saying, ‘Here 
I am!’ ( Labbayka ) This verbal response ( ijabah bi-al-qawl ) is always immediate. But 
not always so is His response by action ( ijabah bi-al-fil ) which is the actualization of 
what the man has asked for. 

64. Fun., Com., p. 22. 

65. Fun., P- 30/60. 

66. The analogy which Ibn ‘Arabi offers, however, is not easy to understand due to 
his peculiar way of expressing himself. The meaning of the passage will be explicated 
in the paragraph immediately after the quotation. 

67. Strictly speaking, al-hamd li- Allah is an exclamatory descriptive sentence mean- 
ing ‘all praise belongs to God (and to God alone)’. 


Sufism and Taoism 

68. This is expressed by Ibn ‘Arab! by saying that ‘the praise is done through a Name 
denoting an action’, e.g.. Guardian (hafiz), All-giving ( wahhab ) etc. 

69. This corresponds to the case in which a man praises God ‘through a Name 
denoting purification (tanzih)' , Most Holy ( qaddiis ), Eternal-Everlasting ( alladhi 
lam yazal wa-la yazal) etc. 

70. On this basic distinction see Chapter XI. 

71. Fwy., p. 33/61. 

72. pp. 32-33. 

73. See Chapter IX. 

74. ilahiy, i.e., the self-manifestation that occurs on the level of ‘God’. As we have 
seen earlier, ‘God’ or Allah is the all-comprehensive Name. 

XIII Creation 

I The Meaning of Creation 

‘Creation’ ( khalq ) is unquestionably one of the concepts upon 
which stands the Islamic world-view. It plays a prominent role in all 
aspects of the religious thought of Islam. In theology, for example, it 
constitutes the very starting-point of all discussions in the form of 
the opposition between the ‘temporality’ ( hudiith ) and ‘eternity a 
parte ante ’ ( qidam ). The world is an ‘originated’ (or ‘temporally 
produced’) thing because it is the result of Divine creation. And this 
conception of the world’s being ‘originated’ ( muhdath ) forms the 
basis of the entire system of Islamic theology. 

In the world-view of Ibn ‘ ArabI, too, ‘creation’ plays an import- 
ant part as one of the key-concepts. The creative word of God, 
‘Be!’ (kun) has a decisive meaning in the coming-into-being of all 
beings. As we have seen, however, the most basic concept of Ibn 
‘Arabi’s ontology is self-manifestation, and the world of Being is 
after all nothing but the self-manifestation of the Absolute, and no 
event whatsoever occurs in the world except self-manifestation. In 
this sense, ‘creation’ which means the coming-into-being of the 
world is naturally identical with self-manifestation. 

But we would make a gross mistake if we imagine that since the 
ontology of Ibn ‘Arab! is based on self-manifestation and since 
there is nothing but self-manifestation, ‘creation’ is after all, for 
him, a metaphor. To think that Ibn ‘Arab! used the term ‘ creation’ 
making a concession to the established pattern of Islamic thought, 
and that he merely described self-manifestation in a more tradi- 
tional terminology, is to overlook the multilateral nature of his 

One of the characteristic features of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought is its 
manifoldness. In the presence of one important problem, he usually 
develops his thought in various directions and in various forms with 
the help of rich imagery. This, I think, is due largely to the unusual 
profundity and fecundity of his experience which always underlies 
his thinking. The depth and richness of mystical experience 
demands, in his case, multiplicity of expression. 


Sufism and Taoism 

The theory of ‘creation’ which we are going to examine is not to 
be considered as a mere religious metaphor, or some esoteric teach- 
ing disguised in traditional theological terminology. ‘Creation’ is to 
him as real as ‘self-manifestation’ . Or we might say that one and the 
same fundamental fact existing in his consciousness has two differ- 
ent aspects, one ‘creation’, and the other ‘self-manifestation’. 

The first thing which attracts our attention about his theory of 
‘creation’ is the important part played by the concept of ‘triad’ or 
‘triplicity’, thalathiyah. This marks it off from the theory of ‘self- 
manifestation’ . 

The starting-point is as usual the Absolute. The ontological 
ground of existence is, as we already know, the One-Absolute. But 
the One, if considered in its phenomenal aspect, presents three 
different aspects. They are: (1) the Essence not qua Essence in its 
absoluteness, but in its self-revealing aspect), (2) the Will or iradah 
(here the Absolute is a ‘Wilier’, murid), and (3) the Command or 
amr 1 (here the Absolute is a ‘Commander’, amir). 

These three aspects in the order given here represent the whole 
process of ‘creation’. The process may be briefly described as fol- 
lows. First, there arises in the One- Absolute self-consciousness - or 
Knowledge (‘ ilm ) - and the permanent archetypes appear in the 
Divine Consciousness. This marks the birth of the possible Many. 
And thereby the Presence of the Essence (i.e., the ontological level 
of the Absolute qua Absolute) descends to the Presence of Divinity 
(ilahiyah, ‘being God’). 

Then, in the second place, there arises the Will based on this 
Knowledge to bring out the archetypes from the state of non- 
existence into the state of existence. Then, on the basis of this Will, 
the Command - ‘Be!’ (kun) - is issued, and thus the world is 

Having these preliminary remarks in mind, let us read the passage 
in which Ibn ‘Arabi describes the process. 2 

Know - may God assist you in doing so! - that the whole matter (i.e., 
‘creation’) in itself has its basis in the ‘singleness’ ( fardiyah ). But this 
‘singleness’ has a triple structure ( tathlith ). For the ‘singleness’ starts 
to appear only from ‘three’. In fact ‘three’ is the first single (i.e., odd) 

What Ibn ‘Arab! wants to convey through these laconic expressions 
may be made clear if we explain it in the following way. He begins by 
saying that the very root of ‘creation’ is the ‘singleness’ of the 
Absolute. It is important to remark that he refers here to the 
Absolute as ‘single’ ( fard ), not as ‘One’. In other words, he is not 
speaking of the Absolute as Absolute in its essential absoluteness. 



We are here at a lower stage at which the Absolute has self- 
consciousness or Knowledge. 

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘one’ is not a number at all; it is the 
principle and ‘birth-place’ of all numbers from ‘two’ onwards, but it 
is not itself a number. ‘One’ is absolutely above all relations; it is 
naturally above the concept itself of number. 

‘Single’ is not like that. Outwardly it is ‘one’, but in its inner 
structure it is not ‘one’ , because the concept of singleness contains in 
itself the concept of ‘other’. It is ‘one’ in so far as it is other than 
others. In this sense, ‘single’ is internally divisible and divided, 
because we cannot represent it without at the same time represent- 
ing - negatively, to be sure - the idea of otherness. In this sense it is 
‘one’ composed of more than one unit. And ‘three’ is the smallest, 
i.e., first, ‘single’ number in the infinitely extending series of num- 
bers - which makes it particularly appropriate for functioning as the 
starting-point of the Divine act of creation. 

And from this Presence of Divinity (i.e., the ontological plane where 
the Absolute is no longer One but Single endowed with an inner 
triplicity) the world has come into existence. To this God refers when 
He says: ‘ Whenever We decide (lit. ‘will’ the existence of) something, 
We only say to it, ‘Be!’, and it comes into existence’ (XVI, 40). Thus 
we see (the triplicity of) the Essence, the Will, and the Word. 3 
Anything would not come into existence if it were not for (1) the 
Essence and (2) its Will - the Will which is the drive with which the 
Essence turns towards bringing something in particular into exis- 
tence-and then (3) the WordBe!’ uttered to that particular thing at 
the very moment when the Will turns the Essence in that direction. 4 

The passage just quoted describes the structure of the triplicity on 
the side of the Agent, i.e., the Absolute. But the triplicity on the part 
of the Creator alone does not produce any effect. In order that the 
creative activity of the Absolute be really effective, there must be a 
corresponding triplicity also on the part of the ‘receiver’ (qabil), i.e., 
the thing to be created. Creation is actualized only when the active 
triplicity perfectly coincided with the passive triplicity. 

(The moment the creative Word of God is uttered) there arises in the 
thing to be created, too, a singleness having a triplicity. And by this 
triplicity alone does the thing, on its part, become capable of being 
produced and being qualified with existence. The triplicity in the 
object consists of (1) its thing-ness ( shay’iyyah ), (2) its hearing 
( sama ‘ ), and (3) its obeying ( imtithal ) the Command of the Creator 
concerning its creation. So that the (creaturely) triad corresponds 
with the (Divine) triad. 

The first (1) is the permanent archetypal essence of the thing in the 
state of non-existence, which corresponds to the Essence of its 
Creator. The second (2) is the hearing of the Command by the thing, 


Sufism and Taoism 

which corresponds to the Will of its Creator. And the third (3) is its 
obedient acceptance of what it has been commanded concerning its 
coming into existence, which corresponds to the (Creator’s) Word 
‘Be!’ Upon this, the thing actually comes into being. 

Thus the ‘bringing-into-being’ ( takwin , or ‘production’) is to be 
attributed to the thing (created). For if the thing had not in itself the 
power of coming into being when the Word (‘Be!’) is uttered, it 
would never come into existence. In this sense it is the thing itself that 
brings it into existence from the state of non-existence. 5 

It is remarkable that a special emphasis is laid here in the process of 
creation on the ‘power’ (quwwah) of the thing to be created. A thing 
is not created ih a purely passive way, that is, mechanically and 
powerlessly, but it participates positively in its own creation. This is 
another way of looking at the supreme power of the ‘preparedness’ , 
which we have discussed in the preceding chapter. 

When God decides to bring something into existence, He simply 
says to it ‘Be!’ And the thing, in response, comes into existence. In 
this process, the coming-into-being ( takawwun ) itself is an act of 
that thing, not an act of God. This conception is explained by 
al-Qashani in the following terms : 6 

The coming-into-being, that is, the thing’s obeying the Command, 
pertains to nothing else than the thing itself, for it (i.e., coming-into- 
being) is (as Ibn ‘ Arabi says) in the power of the thing; that is to say, it 
is contained potentially in the thing, concealed. This is why God (in 
the above-quoted Qoranic verse) ascribes it (i.e., coming-into-being) 
to the thing, by saying, ‘and it comes into existence’. 7 This sentence 
means that the thing (upon hearing the Word) immediately obeys the 
order and comes into existence. And the thing is capable of doing so 
simply because it is already existent in the Unseen (i.e., potentially), 
for the archetypal subsistence is nothing other than a concealed inner 
mode of existence. Everything that is ‘inward’ has in itself the power 
to come out into ‘outward’ existence. This is due to the fact that the 
Essence (designated by the) Name ‘Inward’ ( ba(in ) is the same 
Essence (designated by the) Name ‘Outward’ ( zahir ), and because 
the ‘receiver’ ( qabil ) is (ultimately) the same as the ‘Agent’ ( fa‘il ). 

Such is the original theory of ‘creation’ put forward by Ibn ‘Arabi. 
He affirms very emphatically that the ‘production’ {takwin) is to be 
ascribed to the thing produced, not to be Absolute. Such a position 
will surely be criticized by ordinary believers as considering God 
powerless’ (‘ ajiz ). But, as I have repeatedly pointed out, this posi- 
tion is not at all blasphemous in the eyes of those who really know 
the structure of Ibn ‘Arab? s world-view. Surely, in this world-view, 
the things (creatures) are described as being so positively powerful 
that they leave but a limited space for the direct activity of the 
Absolute. On a deeper level, however, those things that are provi- 



sionally considered as independently existent are nothing but so 
many particularized, delimited forms of the Absolute, and all are 
involved in an ontological drama within the Absolute itself; all are a 
magnificent Divina Commedia. 

The idea of ‘production’ (the last stage of the ‘creation’) being 
ascribable to the things and not to the Absolute is further explained 
by Ibn ‘Arab! in the following way : 8 

God states categorically that the ‘production’ pertains to the (cre- 
ated) thing itself, and not to God. What pertains to God in this matter 
is only His Command. He makes His part (in the creative process) 
clear by saying: ‘Whenever We decide (the existence of) something. 

We only say to it “Be!”, and it comes into existence’ (XVI, 40). Thus 
the ‘production’ is ascribed to the thing though, to be sure, the latter 
acts only in obedience to the Command of God. And (we must accept 
this statement as it is because) God is truthful in whatever He says. 
Besides, this (i.e., the ascription of the ‘production’ to the thing) is 
something quite reasonable, objectively speaking. 

(This may be illustrated by an example.) Suppose a master who is 
feared by everybody and whom nobody dares to disobey commands 
his slave to stand up by saying to him, ‘ Stand up!’ {qum)\ the slave will 
surely stand up in obedience to the command of the master. To the 
master pertains in the process of the slave’s standing up only his 
commanding him to do so, while the act of standing up itself pertains 
to the slave; it is not an act of the master. 

Thus it is clear that the ‘production’ stands on the basis of triplicity; in 
other words, three elements are involved on both sides, on the part of 
the Absolute as well as on the part of the creatures. 

It will be evident, then, that in Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s thought, the principle of 
creatio ex nihilo holds true. But what makes his thesis fundamen- 
tally different from the ordinary Islamic creatio ex nihilo is that the 
nihil, for Ibn Arabi, is not a total unconditional ‘non-existence’ , but 
non-existence in the particular sense of something being as yet 
non-existent as an empirical or phenomenal thing. What he regards 
as nihil is ‘existence’ on the level of the intelligibles, or - which 
comes to the same thing - in the Consciousness of God. Ontologi- 
cally, his nihil is the ‘possible’ ( mumkin),i.e ., something that has the 
power (or possibility) to exist. The ordinary view which makes 
creation a sort of Divine monodrama has its origin in the ignorance 
of the positive power to be attributed to the ‘possibles’ . All things, in 
Ibn ‘ Arabi’s view, have enough power to come out from the conce- 
alment into the field of existence in response to the ontological 
Command of God. 

Thus the creaturely world is possessed of ‘efficiency’ ( fa' illy ah ). 
And the things that constitute this would participate actively and 
positively in the creation of themselves. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Looking at an artisan who is engaged in molding things out of 
clay, one might make a superficial observation that the clay has no 
positive ‘efficiency’ of its own, and that it lets itself molded into 
whatever form the artisan likes. In the view of such a man, the clay 
in the hands of an artisan is sheer passivity, sheer non-action. He 
overlooks the important fact that, in reality, the clay, on its part, 
positively determines the activity of the artisan. Surely, the artisan 
can make quite a considerable variety of things out of clay, but 
whatever he may do, he can not go beyond the narrow limits set by 
the very nature of the clay. Otherwise expressed, the nature of the 
clay itself determines the possible forms in which it may be actual- 
ized. Somewhat similar to this is the positive nature of a thing in the 
process of ‘creation’. 

The same observation, however, clearly shows that, although the 
things do possess ‘efficiency’, the latter is after all secondary, not 
primary. Herein lies the fundamental difference between God and 
the world. ‘As women are by nature a degree lower than men’, the 
creatures are a degree lower than the Absolute. The things, with all 
their positive powers and capacities, have no essential priority. 

As women are a degree lower than men according to God’s saying: 
‘and men are a degree above them (i.e., women)’ (II, 228), the things 
that have been created in the image (of God) are naturally a degree 
lower than the One who has brought them into being in His image, in 
spite of the fact that their forms are God’s Form itself. 

And by that very degree which separates God from the world, God is 
completely independent (i.e., has absolutely no need) of the whole 
world, and is the primary Agent. As for the ‘form’, it is but a 
secondary agent and has no essential priority which pertains only to 
the Absolute. 9 

II The Feminine Element in the Creation of the World 

In the last part of the preceding section reference has incidentally 
been made to the idea that women are by nature a degree lower than 
men. This, however, should not be taken to mean that Ibn ‘ArabI 
considers the role played by the feminine in the process of world 
creation quite secondary, let alone unimportant. On the contrary, 
the entire creative process, in his view, is governed by the principle 
of femininity. 

The starting-point of his thinking on this problem is furnished by 
a famous Tradition which runs: ‘Of all the things of your world, 
three things have been made particularly dear to me, women, 
perfumes, and the ritual prayer, this last being the “cooling of my 
eye” (i.e., a source of my highest joy)’ . In this Tradition, Ibn ‘ArabI 



observes, the number ‘three’ - triplicity again! - is put in the 
feminine form ( thalath ), in spite of the fact that one of the three 
things here enumerated ( tib ‘perfume’) is a masculine noun. Ordi- 
narily, in Arabic grammar, the rule is that, if there happens to be 
even one masculine noun among the things enumerated, one treats 
the whole as grammatically masculine, and uses the numeral in the 
masculine form ( thalathah , for example, instead of thalath , meaning 

Now in this Tradition, the Prophet intentionally - so thinks Ibn 
‘ Arabi - uses the feminine form, thalath , and this, in his view, has a 
very deep symbolic meaning. It suggests that all the basic factors 
that participate in creation are feminine, and that the whole process 
of creation is governed by the principle of femininity ( ta’nith ). Ibn 
‘Arab! draws attention to the process by which a man (male) comes 
into being : 10 

The man finds himself situated between an essence (i.e., the Divine 
Essence) which is his (ontological) source and a woman (i.e., his own 
mother) who is his (physical) source. Thus he is placed between two 
feminine nouns, that is to say, between the femininity of essence and 
the real (i.e., physical) femininity. 

The Essence ( dhat ), which is the original ground of all Being, is a 
feminine noun. The immediate ontological ground of the forms of 
all beings, i.e., the Divine Attributes, sifat (sg. sifah), is a feminine 
noun. The creative power of God, qudrah is a feminine noun. Thus, 
from whatever aspect one approaches the process of creation, one 
runs into a feminine noun. The Philosophers ( falasifah ) who blindly 
follow Greek philosophy assert that God is the ‘cause’ (' illah ) of the 
existence of the world. This is a mistaken view, and yet it is 
significant, Ibn ‘Arabi adds, that even in this wrong opinion about 
creation, a feminine noun, ‘illah, is used to denote the ultimate 
ground of the creation of the world. 

The whole problem is dealt with by al-Qashani in a far more 
scholastic way as follows : 11 

The ultimate ground (or origin) of everything is called Mother 
( umm ), because the mother is the (stem) from which all branches go 
out. Do you not see how God describes the matter when He says: 
‘And He created from it (i.e., the first soul, meaning Adam) its mate, 
and out of the two He spread innumerable men and women’ (IV, 1). 

As you see, the ‘wife’ (of Adam) was feminine. Moreover, the first 
unique ‘soul’ from which she was created was itself feminine. 12 
Just in the same way, the Origin of all origins over which there is 
nothing is designated by a (feminine noun), haqiqah or ‘Reality’ . . . 
Likewise the words designating the Divine Essence, 'ayn and dhat, 
are feminine. 


Sufism and Taoism 


Thus his (i.e., Muhammad's) intention in making (the femininity) 
overcome (the masculinity) 13 is to draw attention to the special 
importance of the femininity which is the very origin and source of 
everything that spreads out from it. And this is true not merely of the 
world of Nature but even of Reality itself. 

In fact. Reality is the Father (ab) of everything in that it is the 
absolute Agent (i.e., the absolutely Active, /57/). But Reality is also 
the Mother (because of its passivity). It gathers together in itself both 
‘activity’ ( fi‘l ) and ‘passivity’ ( infial ), for Reality is ‘passive’ 

( munfa‘il ) in so far as it manifests itself in the form of a ‘passive’ thing, 
while in the form of the ‘active’ (Agent) it is ‘active’. The very nature 
of Reality requires this unification of the ‘determination’ ( ta‘ayyun ) 
and ‘non-determination’ ( lata‘ayyun ). 14 Thus Reality is ‘determined’ 
by all determinations, masculine and feminine, on the one hand. But 
on the other, it stands high above all determinations. 

And Reality, when it becomes determined by the first determina- 
tion, 15 is One Essence requiring a perfect balance and equilibrium 
between ‘activity’ and ‘passivity’, between the exterior self- 
manifestation (zuhiir) and the interior self-concealment ( butiin ). 16 
And in so far as it is the ‘Inward’ (ba(in) residing in every form, it is 
‘active’, but in so far as it is the ‘Outward’ ( zahir ), it is ‘passive’. . . . 

The first determination, which occurs by (the Absolute’s) manifest- 
ing itself to itself, attests to the fact that the Essence is absolute and 
non-determined, for its self-determination (taayyun bi-dhati-hi ) 
must necessarily be preceded by non-determination ( la-ta‘ayyun ). 
Likewise when Reality qua Reality is actualized in every determined 
(i.e., concretely delimited) existent, its determination (also) requires 
that it be preceded by non-determination. Nay, rather, every deter- 
mined existent, considered in its reality apart from all consideration 
of its actual delimitations, is an absolute (i.e., every determined 
existent is in its ontological core an absolute - which is nothing but 
the Absolute itself). A determined existent, in this sense, depends 
upon the Absolute (which is inherent in it) and is sustained by it. So 
everything is ‘passive’ in relation to that absolute (ontological) 
ground, and is a locus of self-manifestation for it, while that ground is 
‘active’ and remains concealed in the thing. 

Thus everything is ‘passive’ considered from the point of view of its 
being determined, but ‘active’ in itself, 17 considered from the point of 
view of its being absolute. But the thing itself is essentially one. ... So 
Reality, wherever it goes and in whatever way it appears, has (two 
different aspects; namely), ‘activity’ and ‘passivity’, or ‘fatherhood’ 

( ubuwwah ) and ‘motherhood’ ( umumah ). And this justifies the 
(Prophet’s having used) the feminine form. 

The Absolute, which is the ultimate and real origin of ‘creation’, 
has something feminine in it, as indicated by the feminine form of 
the word ‘Essence’ ( dhat ). Furthermore, if we consider analytically 
the ontological structure of the creative process, we find, even at its 
first stage, the ‘first determination’, a feminine principle, the 



‘motherhood’, co-operating with a masculine principle, the ‘father- 
hood’. The Divine Essence, in brief, is the Mother of everything in 
the sense that it represents the ‘passive’ element which is inherent in 
all forms of Being. 

Ill Perpetual Creation 

We turn now to one of the most interesting features of the theory of 
creation peculiar to Ibn ‘ Arabl. This part of his theory is historically 
of primary importance because it is a critique of the atomistic 
philosophy of the Ash‘arite theologians. 18 

We have already seen in connection with another problem that, in 
Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s world-view, the self-manifestation of the Absolute is a 
perpetual process whose major stages - (1) the ‘most holy emana- 
tion’, (2) the ‘holy emanation’, and then (3) the appearance of 
concrete individual things - go on being actualized one after 
another like successive, recurrent waves. This ontological process 
repeats itself indefinitely and endlessly. At every moment, and 
moment after moment, the same eternal process of annihilation and 
re-creation is repeated. At this very moment, an infinite number of 
things and properties come into being, and at the next moment they 
are annihilated to be replaced by another infinity of things and 

Thus we cannot experience the same world twice at two different 
moments. The world we actually experience is in perpetual flow. It 
changes from moment to moment. But this continual and perpetual 
change occurs in such an orderly way according to such definite 
patterns that we, superficial observers, imagine that the same one 
world is there around us. 

Describing this perpetual flow of things in terms of the concept of 
‘creation’ which is the central topic of the present chapter, Ibn 
‘Arab! says that the world goes on being created anew at every 
single moment. This he calls ‘new creation’ ( al-khalq al-jadid ). The 
expression must not be taken in the sense of a ‘new’ creation to be 
contrasted with the ‘old’, i.e., the earlier, creation of the world. The 
word ‘new’ (jadid) in this context means ‘ever new’ or ‘which is 
renewed from moment to moment’. The ‘new creation’ means, in 
short, the process of everlasting and ever new act of creation. 

Man, being endowed with self-consciousness, can have a real 
living feel of this ‘new creation’ both inside and outside himself, i.e., 
both in his mind and in his body, by becoming conscious of ‘himself , 
which goes on changing from moment to moment without ever 
stopping as long as he lives. However, ordinary people are not 

206 Sufism and Taoism 

aware of the process of ‘new creation’ even with regard to them- 

Ibn ‘Arab! describes this process also as a ‘perpetual ascent’ 
(j taraqqi daim ). This is a very important point at which we can look 
into the very basis of his idea of the ‘new creation’. 

The wonder of all wonders is that man (and consequently, every- 
thing) is in a perpetual process of ascending. And yet (ordinarily) he 
is not aware of this because of the extreme thinness and fineness of 
the veil 19 or because of the extreme similarity between (the success- 
ive forms ). 20 

That everything is involved in the process of the ever new crea- 
tion means primarily that the Absolute is continually manifesting 
itself in the infinity of ‘possible’ things. This is done by the ontologi- 
cal ‘descent’ ( nuzul ) of the Absolute towards the lower levels of 
Being, first to the archetypes and then to the ‘possible’. But the 
same process of perpetual ‘descent’ is, when it is looked at from the 
side of the ‘possible’ , turns out to be a perpetual process of ontologi- 
cal ‘ascent’. Everything, in this sense, is perpetually ‘ascending’ 
towards the Absolute by the very same ‘descending’ of the latter. 

The ‘ascent’ ( taraqqi ) of the things, in other words, is nothing but 
the reverse side of the ‘descent’ of the Absolute towards them. The 
things in the state of non-existence receiving the mercy of 
the Absolute and obtaining thereby existence, produces, from the 
standpoint of these things, the image of their ‘ascending’ toward 
the original source of existence. Al-Qashanl paraphrases the above- 
quoted passage in the following way: 21 

One of the most miraculous things about man is that he is in a 
perpetual state of ascent with regard to the modes of the ‘prepared- 
ness’ of his own archetypal essence. For all the modes of the 
archetypes are things that have been known to God (from eternity), 
permanently fixed in potentiality, and God brings them out to actual- 
ity incessantly and perpetually. And so He goes on transforming the 
possibilities (isti‘ dadat , lit. ’preparednesses’) that have been there 
from the beginningless past and that are (therefore) essentially 
uncreated, into infinite possibilities that are actually created. 

Thus everything is in. the state of ascending at this very moment 
because it is perpetually receiving the endlessly renewed ontological 
(wujudiyah) Divine self-manifestations, and at every self- 
manifestation the thing goes on increasing in its receptivity for 
another (i.e., the next) self-manifestation. 

Man, however, may not be conscious of this because of his eyes being 
veiled, or rather because of the veil being extremely thin and fine. But 
he may also become conscious of it when the self-manifestations take 
on the forms of intellectual, intuitive, imaginative, or mystical 



The concept of ‘new creation’, thus comprising the ontological 
‘descent’ and ‘ascent’, is a point which discloses most clearly the 
dynamic nature of the world-view of Ibn ‘ Arabi. In this world-view, 
nothing remains static; the world in its entirety is in fervent move- 
ment. The world transforms itself kaleidoscopically from moment 
to moment, and yet all these movements of self-development are 
the ‘ascending’ movements of the things toward the Absolute-One, 
precisely because they are the ‘descending’ self-expressions of the 
Absolute-One. In one of the preceding chapters dealing with the 
coincidentia oppositorum, we have already considered the same 
phenomenon from a different point of view. There we saw how the 
One is the Manifold and the Manifold is the One. In fact the 
‘descent’ and ‘ascent’ describe exactly the same thing. 

(As a result of the ‘new creation’ , we are constantly faced with similar 
forms, but of any two similar forms) one is not the same thing as the 
other. For in the eyes of one who recognizes them to be two similar 
things, they are different from one another. Thus a truly perspicaci- 
ous man discerns Many in the One, while knowing at the same time 
that the Divine Names, in spite of their essential diversity and multi- 
plicity, point to one single Reality, for the Names are nothing but 
multiplicity posited by the reason in Something which is essentially 
and really one. 

Thus it comes about that in the process of self-manifestation the 
Many becomes discernible in one single Essence. This may be com- 
pared to the Prime Matter which is mentioned in the definition of 
every form. The forms are many and divergent, but they all go back in 
reality to one single substance which is their Prime Matter . 22 

In this passage, Ibn ‘Arabi seems to be speaking of the horizontal 
similarity-relationship between the concrete beings. He emphasizes 
the particular aspect of the ‘new creation’ in which the concretely 
existent things in the phenomenal world are after all infinitely 
various forms of the Divine self-manifestation, and are ultimately 
reducible to the One. But the same applies also to the vertical, i.e., 
temporal, relation between the ever new creations. In what is seem- 
ingly one and the same thing, the ‘new creation’ is taking place at 
every moment, so that the ‘one and the same thing’, considered at 
two successive moments, is in reality not one and the same, but two 
‘similar’ things. And yet, despite all this, the thing maintains and 
never loses its original unity and identity, because all the new and 
similar states that occur to it succesively are eternally determined by 
its own archetype. 

These two aspects of the ‘new creation’, horizontal and vertical, 
are brought to light by al-Qashani in his commentary on the passage 
just quoted. 23 


Sufism and Taoism 

A truly perspicacious man discerns a multiplicity of self- 
determinations in the one single Essence which appears in an infinite 
number of ‘similar’ forms. All the Divine Names like the Omnipo- 
tent, the Omniscient, the Creator, the Sustainer, etc., point in reality 
to one single Essence, God, despite the fact that each of them has a 
different meaning from the rest. This shows that the divergence of the 
meanings of the Names is merely an intelligible and mental multiplic- 
ity existing in what is called the ‘essentially One’, that they are not a 
really and concretely existent multiplicity. Thus the self- 
manifestation in the forms of all the Names is but a multiplicity 
discernible within one single Essence. The same is true also of the 
events that take place successively (in ‘one and the same thing’). All 
the successive self-manifestations that are similar to each other are 
one in reality, but many if taken as individual self-determinations. 
(The Master) illustrates this with the example of the Prime Matter 
( hayula ). You mention the Prime Matter in defining any substantial 
Form. You say, for example, ‘Body ( jism ) is a substance having 
quantity’, ‘Plant ( nabat ) is a body that grows up’, ‘Stone ( hajar ) is a 
body, inorganic, heavy, and voiceless’, ‘animal ( hayawan ) is a body 
that grows up, has sense perception, and moves with will’, ‘Man 
( insan ) is a rational animal’. In this way, you mention ‘substance’ as 
the definition of ‘body’, and you mention ‘body’ - which is ‘substance’ 

(by definition) - in the definitions of all the rest. Thus all are traced 
back to the one single reality which is ‘substance’. 

This fact can be known only by mystical vision, and is never dis- 
closed to those who understand everything through rational think- 
ing. Thus it comes about that the majority of men, including the 
Philosophers, are not aware of the phenomenon of the ‘new crea- 
tion’. They do not see the infinitely beautiful scene of this kaleido- 
scopic transformation of things. 

How splendid are God’s words concerning the world and its per- 
petual renewal with each Divine breath which constitutes an ‘ever 
new creation’ in one single reality. (But this is not perceived except 
by a few), as He says in reference to a certain group of people - 
indeed, this applies to the majority of men - ‘Nay, they are in utter- 
confusion with regard to the new creation.’ (L, 15). 24 These people 
(are in confusion with regard to it) because they do not know the 
(perpetual) renewal of the things with each Divine breath. 25 

Al-Qashani describes the scene of this perpetual renewal of the 
things as he sees it in his philosophico-mystical intuition in the 
following terms : 26 

The world in its entirety is perpetually changing. And every thing (in 
the world) is changing in itself from moment to moment. Thus every 
thing becomes determined at every moment with a new determina- 
tion which is different from that with which it was determined a 
moment ago. And yet the one single reality which is attained by all 



these successive changes remains forever unchanged. This is due to 
the fact that the ‘one single reality’ is nothing but the reality itself of 
the Absolute as it has taken on the ‘first determination’, and all the 
| forms (i.e., the successive determinations) are accidents that occur to 

i it successively, changing and being renewed at every moment. 

t ; But (ordinary) people do not know the reality of this phenomenon 

|| and are therefore ‘in utter confusion’ regarding this perpetual pro- 

cess of transformation which is going on in the universe. Thus the 
Absolute reveals itself perpetually in these successive self- 
manifestations, while the world is perpetually being lost due to its 
annihilation at every moment and its renewed birth at the next 

Al-Qashani goes a step further and asserts that this perpetual ‘new 
creation’ not only governs the concrete existents of the world, but 
that even the permanent archetypes are under its sway. The 
archetypes in the Divine Consciousness appear and disappear and 
then appear again, repeating the same process endlessly as innum- 
erable lamp-lights that go on being turned on and put out in every 
successive moment. He says : 27 

The ontological emanation ( al-fayd al-wujudiy ) and the Breath of 
the Merciful are perpetually flowing through the beings of the world 
as water running in a river, forever being renewed continuously. 

In a similar way, the determinations of the Absolute-Existence in the 
form of the permanent archetypes in the eternal Knowledge (i.e., 
Divine Consciousness) never cease to be renewed from moment to 
moment. (And this happens in the following way). Thus, as soon as 
the first ontological determination leaves an archetype in a place, at 
the next moment the next determination is attached to it in a different 
place. This is nothing other than the appearance of an archetype 
belonging in the sphere of Divine Knowledge in the second place 
following its disappearance in the first place, while that archetype 
itself remains forever the same in the Knowledge and in the world of 
the Unseen. 

It is as if you saw millions of lights flickering against the background 
of an unfathomable darkness. If you concentrate your sight on any 
one of these illumined spots, you will see its light disappearing in the 
very next moment and appearing again in a different spot in the 
following moment. And the Divine Consciousness is imagined as a 
complicated meshwork formed by all these spots in which light goes 
on being turned on and extinguished at every moment endlessly. 
This is indeed an exceedingly beautiful and impressive image. But 
Ibn ‘Arabi himself in his Fu$iis does not seem to describe the 
permanent archetypes in this way in terms of the ‘new creation’ . The 
‘new creation’ he speaks of in this book concerns the concrete things 
of the sensible world. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Let us return to Ibn ‘ Arab! and analyze his concept of ‘ new creation’ 
as he develops it in relation to his atomistic philosophy. He finds in 
the Qoranic account of the miracle of Bilqis, Queen of Sheba, an 
admirable illustration of this incessant annihilation and re-creation 
which is going on in the world of Being. The account is found in the 
Qoran, XXVII, 38-40. 

Once Solomon asked those who were there in his presence, jinn 
and human beings, whether any of them could bring him the throne 
of the Queen. Thereupon one of the jinn said ‘I will bring it to thee 
before thou risest from thy place!’ But a man ‘who had knowledge 
of the Scripture’ 28 said, ‘I will bring it to thee before thy gaze returns 
to thee (i.e., in the twinkling of an eye)’ . And he did bring the throne 
on the spot from the far-off country in South Arabia and set it in 
front of Solomon. 

How could he accomplish this miracle? Ibn ‘Arab! says that the 
man simply took advantage of the ‘new creation’ . The throne of the 
Queen was not transported locally from Sheba to the presence of 
Solomon. Nobody, in fact, can carry any material object from one 
place to a distant place in the twinkling of an eye. Nor did Solomon 
and his people see the throne in hallucination. Rather the throne 
which had been with Bilqis was annihilated and, instead of been 
re-created in the same place, was made to appear in the presence of 
Solomon. This is, indeed, a miraculous event, in the sense that a 
thing disappeared and in the next moment appeared in a different 
place. From the viewpoint of the ‘new creation’, however, such an 
event is not at all an impossibility. For, after all, it is nothing but a 
new throne being created in an entirely different place. 

The superiority of the human sage over the sage of the jinn consists in 
the (deeper knowledge possessed by the former concerning) the 
secrets of the free disposal of anything at will and the particular 
natures of things. And this superiority can be known by the amount 
of time needed. For the ‘return of the gaze’ towards the man who 
looks is faster than the standing up of a man who stands up from his 
seat. . . . For the time in which the gaze moves to an object is exactly 
the amount of time in which the gaze gets hold of the object however 
great the distance may be between the man who looks and the object 
looked. At the very moment the eye is opened, its gaze reaches the 
sphere of the fixed stars. And at the very moment the perception 
stops, the gaze returns to the man. The standing up of a man from his 
seat cannot be done so quickly. 

Thus Asaf b. Barakhiya was superior to the jinn in his action. For the 
moment Asaf spoke, he accomplished his work. And Solomon saw at 
the same moment the throne of Bilqis. The throne was actually 
placed in his presence in order that no one should imagine that 
Solomon perceived (from afar) the throne in its original place with- 
out its being transferred. 



In my opinion, however, there can be no local transference in one 
single moment. There occurred (in Solomon’s case) simply a simul- 
taneous annihilation and re-creation in such a manner that no one 
could perceive it, except those who had been given a true knowledge 
(of this kind of thing). This is what is meant by God’s saying: ‘Nay, 
they are in utter confusion with regard to the new creation’. And 
there never occurs even a moment in which they cease to see what 
they have seen (at the preceding moment). 29 
Now if the truth of the matter is as I have just described, the moment 
of the disappearance of tire throne from its original place coincided 
with the moment of its appearance in the presence of Solomon as a 
result of the ‘new creation’ occurring with every Breath. Nobody, 
however, notices this discrepancy (between two moments of the ‘new 

Nay, the ordinary man is not aware of it (i.e., the ‘new creation’) even 
with regard to himself. Man does not know that he ceases to exist and 
then comes to existence again with every single breath. 30 

As we see, Ibn ‘Arab! here writes that man ceases to exist at every 
moment and then ( thumma ) comes to existence again. But he 
immediately adds the remark that the particle thumma, meaning 
‘then’ or ‘after that’ , should not be taken as implying a lapse of time. 

You must not think that by the word thumma I mean a temporal 
interval. This is not correct. The Arabs use this word in certain 
particular contexts to express the priority in causal relationship. 31 . . . 

In the process of ‘the new creation with each Breath’ , too, the time of 
the non-existence (i.e., annihilation) of a thing coincides with the 
time of the existence (i.e., re-creation) of a thing similar to it (i.e., the 
thing that has just been annihilated). This view resembles the 
Ash‘arite thesis of the perpetual renewal of the accidents ( tajdid 
al-a'rai ). 

In fact, the problem of the transportation of the throne of Bilqis is of 
the most recondite problems understandable only to those who know 
what I have explained above about the story. In brief, the merit of 
Asaf consisted only in the fact that (thanks to him) the ‘re-creation’ in 
question was actualized in the presence of Solomon. . . . 

When Bilqis (thereafter came to visit Solomon and) saw her own 
throne there, she said: ‘It is as though ( ka’anna-hu ) it were (my 
throne)’ (XXVII, 42). (She said ‘as though’) because she knew the 
existence of a long distance (between the two places) and because she 
was convinced of the absolute impossibility of the throne’s having 
been locally transported in such a (short) period of time. Her answer 
was quite correct in view of the above-mentioned idea of the ‘renewal 
of creation’ in similar forms. And in reality it was (i.e., it was the same 
throne of hers in terms of its permanent archetype, but not as a 
concrete individual thing). And all this is true, just as you remain 
what you were in the past moments through the process of the 
perpetual re-creation. 32 


Sufism and Taoism 

Quite incidentally, Ibn ‘Arab! mentions in the passage just quoted 
the atomistic thesis of the Ash‘arite theologians and points out the 
existence of a certain resemblance between his and their atomism. 
But what is more important and more interesting for our purpose is 
rather the difference between them which Ibn ‘ Arabi does not state 
explicitly in this passage, but which he explains in considerable 
detail in another part of the Fu$us. 

The most salient feature of Ash‘arite atomism is the thesis of the 
perpetual renewal ( tajdid ) of accidents. According to this theory, of 
all the accidents of the things there is not even one that continues to 
exist for two units of time. Every accident comes into being at this 
moment and is annihilated at the very next moment to be replaced 
by another accident which is ‘similar’ to it being created anew in the 
same locus. This is evidently the thesis of ‘new creation’. 

Now if we examine Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s thought in relation to this 
Ash‘arite thesis, we find a striking similarity between them. Every- 
thing is, for Ibn ‘Arabi, a phenomenal form of the Absolute, having 
no basis for independent subsistence (qiwam) in itself. All are, in 
short, ‘accidents’ which appear and disappear in the one eternal- 
everlasting Substance (jawhar ). Otherwise expressed, the existence 
itself of the Absolute comes into appearance at every moment in 
milliards of new clothes. With every Breath of God, a new world is 

From the point of view of Ibn ‘Arabi, the atomism of the 
Ash‘arites, though it is not a perfect description of the real structure 
of Being, does grasp at least an important part of the reality. 
Mentioning together with the Ash‘arites a group of sophists known 
as Hisbaniyyah or Husbaniyyah, he begins to criticize them in the 
following manner : 33 

The Ash‘arites have hit upon the truth concerning some of the 
existents, namely, accidents, while the Hisbanites have chanced to 
find the truth concerning the whole of the world. The Philosophers 
consider these people simply ignorant. But (they are not ignorant; 
the truth is rather that) they both (i.e., the Ash‘arites and the Hisba- 
nites) are mistaken. 

First, he criticizes the sophists of the Hisbanite school. The Hisba- 
nites maintain that nothing remains existent for two units of time, 
that everything in the world, whether it be substance or accident, is 
changing from moment to moment. From this they conclude that 
there is no Reality in the objective sense. Reality or Truth exists 
only subjectively, for it can be nothing other than the constant flux 
of things as you perceive it in a fixed form at this present moment . 34 

Though the Hisbanites are right in maintaining that the world as a 
whole and in its entirety is in perpetual transformation, they are 



mistaken in that they fail to see the real oneness of the Substance 
which underlies all these (changing) forms. (They thereby overlook 
the fact that) the Substance could not exist (in the external world) if it 
were not for them (i.e., these changing forms) nor would the forms be 
conceivable if it were not for the Substance. If the Hisbanites could 
see this point too (in addition to the first point), their theory would be 
perfect with regard to this problem. 3S 

Thus, for Ibn ‘Arabi, the merit and demerit of the Hisbanite thesis 
are quite clear. They have hit upon a part of the truth in that they 
have seen the constant change of the world. But they overlook the 
most important part of the matter in that they do not know the true 
nature of the Reality which is the very substrate in which all these 
changes are happening, and consider it merely a subjective con- 
struct of each individual mind. 

Concerning the Ash‘arites, Ibn ‘Arabi says : 36 

As for the Ash‘arites, they fail to see that the world in its entirety 
(including even the so-called ‘substances’) is a sum of ‘accidents’ , and 
that, consequently, the whole world is changing from moment to 
moment since no ‘accident’ (as they themselves hold) remains for two 
units of time. 

And al-Qashani : 37 

The Ash‘arites do not know the reality of the world; namely, that the 
world is nothing other than the whole of all these ‘forms’ which they 
call ‘accidents’ . Thus they only assert the existence of substances (i.e., 
atoms) which are in truth nothing, having no existence (in the real 
sense of the word). And they are not aware of the one Entity (‘ayn) 
which manifests itself in these forms (‘accidents’ as they call them); 
nor do they know that this one Entity is the He-ness of the Absolute. 

This is why they assert (only) the (perpetual) change of the accidents. 

According to the basic thesis of the Ash‘arite ontology, the world is 
reduced to an infinite number of ‘indivisible parts’, i.e., atoms. 
These atoms are, in themselves, unknowable. They are knowable 
only in terms of the ‘accidents’ that occur to them, one accident 
appearing in a locus at one moment and disappearing in the next to 
be replaced by another. 

The point Ibn ‘Arabi makes against this thesis is that these 
‘accidents’ that go on being born and annihilated in infinitely var- 
iegated forms are nothing but so many self-manifestations of the 
Absolute. And thus behind the kaleidoscopic scene of the perpetual 
changes and transformations there is always a Reality which is 
eternally ‘one’ . And it is this one Reality itself that goes on manifest- 
ing itself perpetually in ever new forms. The Ash‘arites who over- 
look the existence of this one Reality that underlies all ‘accidents’ 
are, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, driven into the self-contradictory 


Sufism and Taoism 



thesis that a collection of a number of transitory ‘accidents’ that 
appear and disappear and never remain for two moments constitute 
‘things’ that subsist by themselves and continue to exist for a long 

This (i.e., the mistake of the Ash'arites) comes out clearly in their 
definitions of things. In fact, when they define anything, their 
definition turns the thing into (a collection of) accidents. And it is 
clear that it is all these accidents enumerated in the definition that 
constitute the very ‘substance’ and its reality which (they consider to 
be) self-subsistent. However, even that substance (being a totality of 
the accidents) must ultimately be an accident, and as such it is not 
self-subsistent. Thus (in their theory) accidents which do not subsist 
by themselves, when put together, produce something that subsists 
by itself . 38 

The passage is explicated by al-Qashani as follows. The Ash‘arites, 
whenever they define something, define it as a whole ( majmiC ) of 
accidents. Defining ‘man’ , for example, they say: ‘a rational animal’ . 
The word ‘rational’ ( natiq ) means ‘possessed of reason’ ( dhu nu(q). 
The concept of ‘being possessed of’ is a relation, and ‘relation’ is 
evidently an accident. ‘Reason’ ( nutq ), on the other hand, being 
something added to the essence of ‘animal’ , is also an accident. Thus 
to say that man is ‘a rational animal’ is to say that man is ‘an animal 
with two accidents’ . Then the Ash‘arites go on to define ‘animal’ by 
saying that it is a ‘physical body that grows, perceives, and moves by 
will’. The ‘animal’ turns in this way into a whole of accidents. And 
the same procedure is applied to the definition of the ‘(physical) 
body’ appearing in the definition of ‘animal’. As a result, ‘man’ 
ultimately turns out to be a bundle of accidents which are by 
definition momentary and transitory. And yet this bundle itself is 
considered to be something subsistent by itself, a substance. 

The Ash‘arites, Ibn ‘Arabi continues, are not aware of the fact 
that the very ‘substance’, which they consider a self-subsistent 
entity, is of exactly the same nature as ‘man’, ‘animal’, and other 
things; it is also a bundle of accidents. 

Thus, in their theory, something (i.e., a bundle of accidents ) which 
does not remain for two units of time remains (i.e., as a bundle of 
accidents) for two units of time, nay, for many units of time! And 
something which does not subsist by itself (must be said to) subsist by 
itself, according to the Ash‘arites! However, they do not know that 
they are contradicting themselves. So (I say that) these are people 
‘who are in utter confusion with regard to the new creation ’. 39 

Ibn ‘Arabi brings out the contrast between the ‘wrong’ view of the 
Ash‘arites and the ‘true’ thesis upheld by the people of ‘unveiling’ 
by saying : 40 



As to the people of ‘unveiling’, they see God manifesting Himself 
with every Breath, no single self-manifestation being repeated twice. 
They see also by an immediate vision that every single self- 
manifestation gives rise to a new creation and annihilates a creation 
(i.e., the ‘creation’ that has preceded), and that the disappearance of 
the latter at every (new) self-manifestation is ‘annihilation’ whereas 
‘subsistence’ is caused by what is furnished (immediately) by the 
following self-manifestation. 

Thus in Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s thought, everything in the world (and therefore 
the world itself) is constantly changing, but underlying this universal 
flux of changing things there is Something eternally unchanging. 
Using scholastic terminology he calls this unchanging Something 
the ‘Substance’, the absolute substratum of all changes. In this 
particular perspective, all things - not only the ‘accidents’ so called 
but the ‘substances’ so called - are represented as ‘accidents’ 
appearing and disappearing at every moment. It is interesting to 
observe how the theory of Divine self-manifestation becomes trans- 
formed, when translated into the language of the scholastic philos- 
ophy of ‘substance’ and ‘accident’. 


1. It is also called Word ( qawl ). 

2. Fus., pp. 139-140/115-116. 

3. Reading: hadhihi dhat wa-iradah wa-qawl. 

4. Fus., PP- 139-140/115-116. 

5. Fus., p. 140/115-116. 

6. p. 140. 

7. The point is that God does not say in this verse fa-yukawwin (‘and He brings it 
into existence’) but says fa-yakun (‘and it comes into existence’), the subject of the 
sentence being the thing itself. 

8. Fuy., P- 140/115-116. 

9. Fus., P- 273/219. 

10. Fus., P- 274/220. 

11. pp. 274-275. 

12. Although Adam is a man, he is, as a ‘soul’ ( nafs ), feminine. 

13. The reference is to the above-quoted Tradition, in which the Prophet uses the 

216 Sufism and Taoism 

feminine numeral thalath in spite of the presence of a masculine noun among the 
three things enumerated. 

14. ‘Determination’ (or more strictly ‘being determined’) refers to the passive side 
of the Absolute, i.e., the Absolute as manifesting itself in a concrete (determined) 
thing. ‘Non-determination’ refers to the active side of the Absolute, i.e., the Abso- 
lute as the absolute Agent. 

15. The ‘first determination’ ( al-ta‘ayyun al-awwal) means the self-manifestation of 
the Absolute to itself as a unifying point of all the Divine Names. The Absolute is 
here the ‘one’ ( wahid ), and the ontological stage the wahidiyah , ‘Oneness’. 

1 6. The Absolute qua One is potentially all beings but it is in actuality still one. So it 
is neither in the state of pure exterior self-manifestation nor in that of pure interior 
concealment, but it keeps, so to speak, a perfect balance between these two terms. 

17. I read: [wa-fa‘il\ min nafci-hi, etc. 

18. The idea presents a very important and interesting problem from the viewpoint 
of comparative Oriental philosophy. See my ‘The Concept of Perpetual Creation in 
Islamic Mysticism and Zen Buddhism’ (in Melanges offerts a Henry Corbin', ed. 
Seyyed Hossein Nasr Tehran, 1977, pp. 115-148. 

19. When you look at something through an extremely fine and transparent fabric 
you do not become aware of the existence of the veil between you and the thing. The 
‘veil’ here refers to the outward form shown by the act of ‘ascending’. 

20. Fuy., p. 151-152/124. 

21. p. 152. 

22. Fuy., p. 152/124-125. 

23. p. 152-153. 

24. Ibn ‘Arab!, as he often does, is giving quite an arbitrary meaning to the Qoranic 
verse. The actual context makes it clear beyond any doubt that God is here speaking 
of Resurrection after death, which is conceived of as a ‘new creation’. The ‘new 
creation’ does not certainly mean in this verse the ever new process of creation which 
is Ibn ‘Arabfs thesis. 

25. Fuy., p. 153/125. 

26. p. 153. 

27. pp. 195-196. 

28. The Qoran does not give his name. Commentators assert that the man was a sage 
whose name was Asaf b. Barakhiya. 

29. This annihilation/re-creation is done so quickly that man does not notice any 
discontinuum between the two units of time in his sense perception and imagines that 
everything continues to be as it has been. 

30. Fu$., pp. 195-196/155. 



XIV Man as Microcosm 

As I remarked earlier, the world-view of Ibn ‘Arabi stands on two 
bases: one is the Absolute, and the other the Perfect Man. And all 
through the preceding pages, we have been analyzing his ontologi- 
cal world-view exclusively from the first angle. The remaining chap- 
ters will be concerned with the analysis of the same world-view 
looked at from the second point of view. 

I Microcosm and Macrocosm 

In setting out to discuss the concept of the Perfect Man ( al-insan 
al-kamil) it is, I think of special importance to observe that Ibn 
‘Arab! considers ‘man’ on two different levels. It is important to 
keep this basic distinction in mind, because if we neglect to do so, we 
shall easily be led into confusion. 

The first is the cosmic level. Here ‘man’ is treated as a cosmic 
entity. In popular terminology we might say that what is at issue on 
this level is ‘mankind’ . In logical terminology, we might say that it is 
‘man’ as a species. In any event, the question is not about ‘man’ as an 
individual person. 

‘Man’ on this level is the most perfect of all beings of the world, 
for he is the Imago Dei. Here ‘man’ himself is perfect; ‘man’ is the 
Perfect Man. The Perfect Man in this sense is ‘man’ viewed as a 
perfect epitome of the universe, the very spirit of the whole world of 
Being, a being summing up and gathering together in himself all the 
elements that are manifested in the universe. ‘Man’ is, in short, the 

At the second level, on the contrary, ‘man’ means an individual. 
On this level, not all men are equally perfect. There are, from this 
point of view, a number of degrees among men. And only few of 
them deserve the appellation of the Perfect Man. The majority of 
men are far from being ‘perfect’. 

The present chapter will be concerned with the Perfect Man as 
understood in the first sense. 

Man as Microcosm 


As has just been remarked ‘man’ on the first of the two levels is an 
epitome of the whole universe. He is, in this sense, called the 
‘comprehensive being’ (al-kawn al-jami‘, lit. ‘a being that gathers 
1 together’), that is, Microcosm. 

; Concerning the birth of ‘ man’ as the ‘ comprehensive being’ , there 
is at the very outset of the Fusus, a very famous passage. The 
| passage is filled with technical terms peculiar to Ibn ‘Arabi, all of 
I which have already been analyzed in the preceding chapters. Here 
j> Ibn ‘Arabi describes the mysterious process by which the self- 
;; manifestation of the Absolute is activated by the inner requirement 
of the Divine Names, leading toward the creation of the world, and 
in particular the creation of ‘man’ as the being who sums up in itself 
all the properties that are diffused in the whole universe. The 
passage begins with the following words: 1 


i When the Absolute God, at the level of his Beautilul Names that 

exceed enumeration, wished to see the (latent) realities of the Names 
- or if you like, say. His inner reality itself - as (actualized) in a 
‘comprehensive being' which, because of its being qualified by 
‘existence’, contains in itself the whole universe, and (wished) to 
make manifest to Himself His own secret through it (i.e., the ‘com- 
jfv prehensive being') . . . 

These opening words of the passage constitute a brief summary of 
the ontology of Ibn ‘Arabi which we have been studying in detail in 
the preceding. The argument may be explained as follows. 

Ibn ‘Arabi begins by stating that the Divine Wish {mashlah) for 
the creation of the world (and man in particular) did not arise from 
the Absolute qua Absolute. The creative Wish arose due to the 
essential inner drive of the Beautiful Names or Attributes. The 
Absolute qua Absolute characterized by an absolute ‘indepen- 
dence’ ( istighna ) does not require by itself and for itself any crea- 
| tive activity. It is the Divine Names that require the existence of the 
universe, the created world. It is in the very nature of the Divine 
l Names to require the world, because they are actualized only by the 
concrete existents, and without the latter they lose positive 

Ibn ‘Arabi expresses this situation by saying: ‘The Absolute 
wished to see the realities (a‘yan) of the Divine Names’, or ‘The 
Absolute wished to see its own inner reality {‘ayn). The first formula 
corresponds to what we already know as ‘ the holy emanation’ , while 
the second corresponds to the ‘most holy emanation’. The distinc- 
I' tion does not make much difference in this particular context, 
f because ‘the holy emanation’ necessarily presupposes the ‘most 
holy emanation’ , and the latter necessarily entails the former. What 
Ibn ‘Arab! wants to say is that God had the mashVah to see Himself 



Sufism and Taoism 

as reflected in the mirror of the world, that He wished to see Himself 
in the very manifestation-forms of His own Attributes. 

The phrase, ‘because of its being qualified by existence’, gives an 
answer to the question: How is it possible for the Absolute to see 
itself by the creation of the universe as epitomized by Man? The 
universe possesses ‘existence’. This ‘existence’ is not the absolute 
Existence itself, but is a ‘relative existence’ ( wujud idafiy), i.e., 
‘existence’ as determined and delimited in various ways and forms. 
But, however determined and delimited, the relative existence is, 
after all, a direct reflection of the absolute Existence. It is the figure 
of the Absolute itself as the latter is manifested in ‘possible’ exist- 
ents, being determined and particularized by each of the loci of its 
self- manifestation. The relative existence is - to use a favorite 
metaphor of Ibn ‘Arab! - the absolute Existence as reflected in the 
mirror of relative determinations. 

An image in a mirror is not the object itself, but it does represent 
the object. In this sense, the universe discloses the ‘secret’ ( sirr ) of 
the Absolute. The word ‘secret’ in the above-quoted passage means 
the hidden (i.e., absolutely invisible) depths of Existence, and cor- 
responds to the phrase ‘the hidden treasure’ (kanz makhfiy ) in the 
famous Tradition which we discussed earlier. 

Ibn ‘Arab! sets out to develop his thought in terms of the metaphor 
of the mirror. He begins by distinguishing between two kinds of 
vision : 2 

The vision which a being obtains of itself is different from the vision 
of itself which it obtains in something else serving as a mirror for it. 

The first of these two kinds of vision consists in a being seeing itself 
in itself. And it goes without saying that the Absolute has vision of 
itself in this sense. Here the Absolute needs no mirror. The Abso- 
lute is ‘All-seeing by itself from eternity’, and nothing of itself is 
concealed from its inner gaze. 

But the Absolute has also an aspect in which it is an Essence 
qualified by Attributes. And since the Attributes become real only 
when they are externalized, it becomes necessary for the Absolute 
to see itself in the ‘other’. Thus the ‘other’ is created in order that 
God might see Himself therein in externalized forms. 

The first thing which God created in order to see Himself therein 
was the world or universe. Ibn ‘ Arabi calls the world in this particu- 
lar context the Big Man {al-insan al-kabir ), i.e., Macrocosm . 3 The 
most salient feature of the Big Man is that every single existent in it 

Man as Microcosm 

represents one particular aspect (Name) of God, and one only, so 
that the whole thing lacks a clear delineation and a definite articula- 
tion, being as it is a loose conglomeration of discrete points. It is, so 
to speak, a clouded mirror. 

In contrast to this, the second thing which God created for the 
purpose of seeing Himself as reflected therein, namely, Man, is a 
well-polished spotless mirror reflecting any object as it really is. 
Rather, Man is the polishing itself of this mirror which is called the 
universe. Those discrete things and properties that have been dif- 
fused and scattered all over the immense universe become united 
and unified into a sharp focus in Man. The structure of the whole 
universe with all its complicated details is reflected in him in a clear 
and distinctly articulated miniature. This is the meaning of his being 
a Microcosm. Man is a Small Universe, while the universe is a Big 
Man, as al-Qashani says . 4 

The contrast between the universe and Man in the capacity of a 
‘mirror’ which God holds up to Himself is described by Ibn ‘Arabi in 
the following terms : 5 

God makes Himself visible to Himself in a (particular) form that is 
provided by the locus (i.e., the mirror) in which He is seen. Some- 
thing in this way becomes visible to Him which would never be visible 
if it were not for this particular locus and His self-manifestation 

(Before the creation of Man) God had already brought into being the 
whole universe with an existence like that of a vague and obscure 
image having a form but no soul within. It was like a mirror that was 
left unpolished. . . . 

This situation naturally demanded the polishing up of the mirror of 
the universe. And Man ( adam , i.e., the reality of Man) was (created 
to be) the very polishing of that mirror and the very spirit of that 

The ontological meaning of the metaphor of the ‘unpolished mirror’ 
is explained by al-Qashani as follows : 6 

Before Man, the Microcosm, was created, the universe (the Macro- 
cosm) had already been existent due to the requirement of the Divine 
Names, because it is in the nature of each Name to require singly the 
actualization of its content, i.e., the Essence accompanied by an 
Attribute, or an existence particularized by an Attribute, while 
another Name asks for an existence particularized by another Attri- 
bute. No single Name, however, requires an existence which would 
unify all the Attributes together, for no Name has an essential unity 
comprising all the Attributes in itself. Thus the universe has no 
property of being a comprehensive locus for manifesting all the 
aspects of existence in its unity. 


Sufism and Taoism 

This fact that the universe was an ‘unpolished mirror’ required the 
creation of Man who was meant to be the very polishing of the 

This is a very important statement for determining the cosmic 
significance of Man. We might interpret it in terms of modern 
philosophic thinking and say that what is symbolized by the ‘polish- 
ing’ - or rather ‘the state of having been polished’ ( jala ’) - of the 
mirror is the ‘consciousness’ of Man. All beings other than Man only 
reflect, each one of them, singly, one aspect of the Absolute. It is 
only when put together in the form of the universe that they consti- 
tute a big whole corresponding to the Consciousness itself of the 
Absolute. In this sense, the universe, certainly, is ‘one’, but, since 
the universe lacks consciousness, it does not constitute real unity. 
Man, on the contrary, not only synthesizes all the forms of the 
Divine self-manifestation which are scattered over the world of 
Being, but also is conscious of this whole. This is why a true com- 
prehensive unity is established by Man, corresponding to the Unity 
of the Absolute. Man is in this sense the Imago Dei. And because of 
this peculiarity, Man can be, as we shall see presently, the ‘viceger- 
ent’ of God on the earth. 

On the correspondence just mentioned between the human 
unity and the Divine Unity, al-Qashani makes the following 
remark : 7 

The Presence (i.e., the ontological level) of 'God' gathers together all 
the Names without there being anything mediatory between them 
and the Divine Essence. The ontological level of Man gathers them 
together in a similar way. This can be understood from the following 
consideration. Existence comes down first from the comprehensive 
Unity of the Essence to the Presence of Divinity, and thence it 
overflows into all the degrees of the ‘possible 1 things spreading more 
and more in various forms until, when it reaches Man, it has already 
been tinged with all the colors of the (ontological) grades. 

Man becomes in this way an intermediate stage ( barzakh ) comprising 
the properties both of necessity and possibility, as the Presence of 
Divinity comprises both the Essence and all the Names. 

The above quoted passage from the Fu$u$, together with this 
explanatory remark by al-Qashani, makes it clear that the most 
important significance of Man lies in his ‘comprehensiveness’ 
( jam‘iyah , lit. ‘gathering-ness’). Before we proceed with this prob- 
lem, we must analyze further in detail the metaphor of the mirror. 

A mirror reflects objects. Sometimes it reflects them as they really 
are. But in many cases an object is reflected in a mirror more or less 
changed or transformed. 

Man as Microcosm 


The image of a person appearing on the polished (surface of a) body 
is nothing other than the person himself, except that the locus or the 
Presence, in which he perceives the reflection of his own image, gives 
back the image to him with a certain transformation 8 according to the 
constitution of that Presence. In the same way, a big thing appears 
small in a small mirror, oblong in an oblong mirror, and moving in a 
moving mirror (i.e., running water). 

Thus the mirror sometimes gives back the image of the person in 
inversion, the inversion being caused by the particular constitution of 
a particular Presence. But sometimes it gives back the very thing (i.e., 
the person who is looking) appearing in it, in such a way that the left 
side (for example) of the reflected image faces the left side of the 
person . 9 Sometimes, again, the right side (of the image in the mirror) 
faces the left side (of the person) as is typical of what customarily 
happens to (an image in) a mirror. Only by a ‘break of custom 1 does 
the right side (for example) face the right side . 10 

On the transforming effect of mirrors, Ibn ‘ Arabi says as follows in 
another passage : 11 

A mirror affects the images in a certain sense, but it does not affect 
them in another sense. It does affect in that it gives back the image of 
an object in a changed form as regards smallness, bigness, length, and 
shortness. Thus it has a positive effect upon the quantities, and that 
effect is properly due to it. On the other hand, however, (it has no 
positive effect of its own in the sense that) all these changes caused by 
the mirror are in the last resort due to the different sizes of the objects 

Even one and the same object is reflected in varying magnitudes in 
mirrors of various magnitudes. Here we see clearly suggested the 
idea that although each individual man, as a mirror of the Absolute, 
reflects the Absolute and nothing else, the reflected images vary 
from person to person according to the individual capacities of 
different men. There is, however, as Ibn ‘Arabi adds, a certain 
respect in which a man, the mirror, must be said to exercise no 
positive, transforming effect upon the image of the Absolute, for all 
transformations of the reflected image ultimately come from the 
internal modifications of the Absolute itself 

Man, unlike the rest of the creatures, actualizes in himself the 
whole of the Divine Names in miniature, and is, in this sense, a 
miraculous mirror which is able to reflect the original unity of the 
Names as it is. But, on the other hand, men considered individually, 
differ from each other in the ‘polishing’ of the cosmic mirror. Only 
in the case of the highest ‘knowers’ does the human consciousness 
reflect on its spotless surface the Absolute as it really is. 

But by making these observations, we are already encroaching 
upon the realm of the next chapter. We must turn our steps back and 
continue our discussion of the nature of Man as Microcosm. 


Sufism and Taoism 

II Comprehensiveness of Man 

The ‘humanity’ (insaniyah) of Man on the cosmic level lies, as we 
have already seen, in his ‘comprehensiveness’ ( jam‘iyah ). Man, as 
Microcosm, contains in himself all the attributes that are found in 
the universe. The Absolute, in this sense, manifests itself in Man in 
the most perfect way. And Man is the Perfect Man because he is the 
most perfect self-manifestation of the Absolute. 

The following is a very important passage in which Ibn ‘Arab! 
explains to us his concept of the Perfect Man on the cosmic level. 12 
He takes the prophet Moses as an illustration. Moses, when he was 
born, was put into a chest, and was thrown into the Nile. Ibn ‘ Arabi, 
by explicating the symbolic meaning of this story, develops it into a 
theory of the Perfect Man. 

As regards the wisdom of Moses’ being put into a chest and thrown 
into the great river, we must notice that the chest ( tabut ) symbolizes 
the ‘human aspect (of man)’ ( nasut , i.e., the body) while the ‘great 
river’ (yamm) symbolizes the knowledge which he acquires by means 
of this body . 13 This Knowledge is acquired by him through the power 
of thinking, and representation. These and similar powers of the 
human soul can only function when the physical body is in existence. 

So, as soon as the soul is actualized in the body and is commanded (by 
God) to use and govern the body freely, God produces in the soul all 
the above-mentioned powers as so many instruments by which the 
soul might achieve the purpose - according to the Will of God - of 
governing this ‘chest’ containing the invisible Presence (. sakinah ) 14 of 
the Lord. 

Thus (Moses) was thrown into the great river so that he might acquire 
by means of these powers all kinds of knowledge. (God) let him 
understand thereby the fact that although the spirit ( riih ) governing 
(the body) is the ‘king’ (i.e., the supreme commander of the human 
body), yet it cannot govern it at will save by means of the body. This is 
why God furnished the body with all these powers existing in the 
‘human aspect’ which He called symbolically and esoterically the 

The same holds true of the governing of the world by God. For He 
governs the world at will only by means of it (i.e., the world), or by 
means of its form . 15 

God governs the world only by the world (by establishing certain 
necessary relations among the things of the world): for example, the 
child depends upon the generating act of the father, the generated 
depend upon their generators, the conditioned upon their con- 
ditions, the effects upon their causes, the conclusions upon their 
proofs, and the concrete existents upon their inner realities. All these 
belong to the world as a result of God’s disposal of the thing. Thus it is 
clear that He governs the world only by the world. 

I have said above: ‘or by means of its form’ , i.e., by means of the form 

Man as Microcosm 


of the world. What I understand here under the word ‘form’ (surah) is 
the Most Beautiful Names by which He has named Himself and the 
highest Attributes by which He has qualified Himself. 

In fact, of every Name of God, which we have come to know, we find 
the meaning actualized in the world and its spirit being active in the 
world. So in this respect, too, God does not govern the world except 
by the form of the world. 

Thus Ibn ‘Arab! divides the governing (tadbir) of the world by the 
Absolute into two kinds: (1) ‘by the world’ and (2) ‘by the form of 
the world’ . The first has been illustrated by such necessary relations 
as exist between the child and the father, the caused and the causes, 
etc. Here God, so to speak, lets the world govern itself by putting 
the things of the world in certain necessary relations. The second 
kind is completely different from this. It consists in God’s making 
His Names and Attributes, i.e., the eternal forms, govern and 
regulate from inside the ever changing phenomenal forms of the 
world. 16 This point is brought out with admirable clarity by al- 
Qashani in his following remark on the just quoted passage of the 
Fusiis. 11 

What is meant by the ‘form of the world’ here is not its sensible 
individual form. If it were so, it (i.e., the second type of governing) 
would simply be reduced to the first type. . . . 

What is really meant by it is the intelligible, specific form of the world, 
which is nothing but the Most beautiful Names and its realities, i.e., 
the highest Attributes. 

The (phenomenal) forms of the world are simply outwardly man- 
ifested forms of the Names and Attributes. These latter are the real 
inner forms of the world. All sensible things are but outward, indi- 
vidualized forms; they are ever changing imprints and external 
shapes, while the (inner forms) are permanent and everlasting, never 
changing. The former are transitory forms, surface phenomena, 
while the latter are the inner meanings and spirits of the former. 

All the Names by which God has named Himself, such as Living, 
Knowing, Willing, Powerful, are there in the world. All the Attri- 
butes with which He has qualified Himself, such as Life, Knowledge, 
Will, Power, are there in the world. Thus God governs the outside of 
the world by its inside. 

(So there are two types in God’s governing the world:) the first is the 
governing exercised by some of the phenomenal forms of the world 
over other phenomenal forms. The second is the governing of the 
phenomenal individual forms by the internal specific forms. Both 
types are the governing of the world by the world. 

Ibn ‘Arab! goes on to argue: 

This is why (the Prophet) said concerning the creation of Adam: 
‘Verily God created Adam in His Form’, for Adam is an exemplar 
synthesizing all the constituent elements of the Presence of Divinity, 


Sufism and Taoism 

namely, the Essence, the Attributes, and the Actions. The expression 
‘His Form’ means nothing but the Presence of Divinity itself. 

Thus God has put into this noble epitome ( mukhtasar ), the Perfect 
Man (as symbolized by Adam), all the Divine Names and the realities 
of all things existing outside of him in the Macrocosm which (appar- 
ently) subsists independently of him. 

This passage explains the meaning of the ‘comprehensiveness’ of 
Man. As we have seen above, the Perfect Man synthesizes in himself 
all the things that exist in the universe, ranging from the four natural 
elements to minerals, plants, and animals. But the important point 
is that all these things do not exist in Man in their concrete indi- 
vidual forms. They exist in him only as ‘ realities’ ( haqaiq ) , that is, in 
their universality. Man gathers together in himself all the things of 
the universe in the sense that he is a synthesis of the non-material 
realities of the individual things. The Perfect Man is an epitome of 
the Macrocosm only in this particular sense. 

God in this way has made Man the Spirit ( ruh ) of the universe, and 
made everything, high and low, subservient to him because of the 
perfection of his (inner) form. 

Thus it comes about that, as ‘there is nothing’ in the whole universe 
‘but gives praises unto God’ (XVII, 44), so there is nothing in the 
universe but is subservient to Man due to the essential merit of his 
inner form. To this refers God’s saying: ‘thus He has made all that is 
in the heavens and in the earth subservient unto you all together, 
from Him’ (XXII, 65). 

So everything in the universe is under the supreme dominion of Man. 

But this fact is known only to those who know it - such a man is the 
Perfect Man 18 - and those who do not know it do not know - such is 
the Animal Man. 

Outwardly considered, the fact that Moses was put into a chest, which 
was then thrown into the great river, meant death, but inwardly, it 
was for him deliverance from being killed. For, as a result, he gained 
life, just as the souls are enlivened by knowledge and are delivered 
from the death of ignorance. 

The long passage which we have quoted explains the real nature of 
the perfection of Man on the cosmic level. In the view of Ibn ‘ Arabi, 
the perfection of Man and the high position assigned to him 19 are 
due to his microcosmic nature, that is, his ‘comprehensiveness’. 
And his ‘comprehensiveness’ consists in his reflecting and realizing 
faithfully the Divine Comprehensiveness. 

All the Names that are contained in the Divine Form 20 have been 
manifested in the ontological dimension of Man. And the latter has 
obtained through this (kind of) existence the (highest) rank of 
integral comprehensiveness. 21 

Man as Microcosm 


As regards the Divine Comprehensiveness (al-jam‘iyah al-ilahiyah ) 
Ibn ‘Arabi gives the following explanation, dividing it into three 
constituents . 22 

(We can distinguish) in the Divine Comprehensiveness: (1) that 
which must be attributed to God Himself (as represented by the 
supreme Name Allah or God, comprehending within itself all the 
Divine Names), (2) that which is ascribable to the Reality of realities, 
and (3) that which - in this constitution (i.e. the bodily constitution of 
Man which comprehends all the recipients of the world ranging from 
the highest to the lowest - is ascribable to what is required by the 
universal Nature. 

The first of these three elements is evidently the Divine aspect of 
Unity, i.e., the Divine Essence, not in its absoluteness but as 
qualified by the Divine Name ‘God’. The second is the ontological 
plane in which the permanent archetypes come into being, i.e., God 
conceived as the highest creative Principle regulating and unifying 
the archetypes. It is called the Reality of realities because through 
this Reality all the realities of the world become actualized. The 
third, the universal Nature (j tabVah kulliyah) is the ontological 
region of ‘reality’ occupying the intermediary position between the 
purely Divine and positively creative ‘reality’ of Divine Names and 
the purely creaturely and essentially passive ‘reality’ of the physical 
world, comprising within itself both these properties - positively 
creative on the one hand, and passively receptive on the other. 
From all this Ibn ‘Arabi comes to the following conclusion . 23 

This being (i.e., the ‘comprehensive being’) is called Man and also a 
Vicegerent ( khalifah ). 24 His being (named) Man is due to the com- 
prehensiveness of his constitution, comprising as it does all the 
realities. Furthermore (he deserves to be named Man - insan 
because) he is to God as the pupil (insan) is to the eye as the 
instrument of vision, i.e., seeing. Thus he is called insan because God 
sees His creatures through man, and has Mercy upon them. 

Man on the cosmic level, or the Perfect Man, is endowed with a 
perfect ‘comprehensiveness’. And because of this ‘comprehensive- 
ness’ by which he synthesizes in himself all the existents of the 
universe not individually but in their universality, the Perfect Man 
shows two characteristic properties which are not shared by any- 
thing else. One is that he is the only being who is really and fully 
entitled to be a perfect ‘servant’ ( [‘abd ) of God. All other beings do 
not fully reflect God, because each actualizes only a single Divine 
Name; they cannot, therefore, be perfect ‘servants’. The second 
characteristic feature of the Perfect Man consists in his being in a 
certain sense the Absolute itself. In the case of beings other than 
human, we can say that the Absolute is the inner reality (‘ayn) of 



Sufism and Taoism 

them, but we cannot surely reverse the relation and say that they are 
the inner reality of the Absolute, for they are but partial actualiza- 
tions of the Divine Self. The following two verses by Ibn ‘Arab! put 
these two characteristics of Man in a concise form . 25 

Verily, we are real servants; verily, God is our Master. 

Verily, we are His Self, and all this is implied when I say ‘Man’. 

That is to say, we are ‘servants’ in the true sense of the word, because 
we serve Him with an essential service, i.e., with the most com- 
prehensive Unity which is realized on the ontological level of ‘God’, 
while God with the whole of His Names is our Master, governing us, 
administering our affairs. We are different in this respect from the 
rest of beings, for they are His servants merely in certain aspects, and 
God is their Master with some of His Names. 

The Perfect Man is the inner reality of the Absolute because he 
appears in the Form of the latter with its comprehensive unity. The 
rest of the things, on the contrary, though the Absolute is the inner 
reality of each one of them, are not the inner reality of the Absolute 
because they are but loci of manifestation for some of the Names so 
that the Absolute does not manifest itself in them in its essential 

But when I say ‘Man’, meaning thereby the Perfect Man, i.e., Man 
perfect in ‘humanity’, what is meant is the being in which the Abso- 
lute manifests itself in its essential Form. Man, in this sense, is the 
very reality of the Absolute. 

Ibn ‘ ArabI considers, further, the ‘comprehensiveness’ of Man from 
the point of view of the Inward-Outward opposition. In exact 
correspondence to the distinction between the Divine Names 
Inward and Outward, there is in Man also a distinction between the 
‘inward’ and the ‘outward’, and he covers thereby the whole of the 

You must know, further, that God describes Himself as being the 
Inward and the Outward. He has correspondingly produced the 
world of the Unseen and the world of sensory experience so that we 
might perceive the Inward by our own ‘unseen’ element and the 
Outward by our ‘sensible’ element. 26 

Thus God has created two worlds, the inner and the outer, corres- 
ponding to His own Inward and Outward, and has given Man, and 
Man only, the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’. In this respect, Man alone is 
the true Imago of the Absolute. 

You must have understood by now the real nature of Adam, i.e., his 
outward ‘form’, as well as the real nature of his spirit ( ruh ), i.e., his 
inward ‘form’ . Adam is the Absolute (in view of his inward form) and 
a creature (in view of his outward form). You know also the real 

Man as Microcosm 

nature of his (ontological) rank which, being a synthesis, makes him 
entitled to be the Vicegerent (of God). 27 

The position of Adam, i.e., the Perfect Man as understood in this 
chapter, is ‘in the middle’ between the Absolute and the creatures. 
He essentially reflects both, represents both, and is a ‘synthesis’ 
(majmu‘) of the two ‘forms’ . His ‘outward’ discloses the form of the 
created world and its realities, while his ‘inward’ reveals the Form 
itself of the Absolute and its essential Names. And because of this 
‘synthesis’ and perfect ‘comprehensiveness’, his rank is higher than 
that of angels. 

Thus all the Names that are contained in the Divine Form are 
manifested in the ontological dimension of Man. The latter has 
obtained through this (kind of) existence the rank of integral com- 

And this precisely was the ground on which God the Exalted refuted 
the argument of the angels 28 . . . The angels were not aware of what 
was implied by the constitution of this ‘vicegerent’ (of God on the 
earth). Nor did they know the ‘essential service’ 29 required by 
the Presence of the Absolute. For nobody can know concerning the 
Absolute except that which his own essence allows him to know, and 
the angels did not possess the ‘comprehensiveness’ of Adam. They 
were not even aware of (the limitedness of) the Divine Names that 
were (manifested) in themselves. So they were praising the Absolute 
and sanctifying it simply through the (limited Names that they hap- 
pened to have in themselves). They were not aware of the fact that 
God has (other) Names about which no knowledge had been given 
them. Consequently the angels were not praising Him through these 
Names; nor were they sanctifying Him in the same way as Adam did. 
Thus they were completely under the sway of what I have just 
mentioned (i.e., their limited knowledge of the Names), and were 
dominated by this (deficient) state of theirs. 

Because of this (deficiency in their) constitution, the angels said (to 
God when He was about to create Adam): ‘Art Thou going to place 
on the earth one who will do harm therein?’ (II, 30). But ‘harm’ can 
be nothing other than ‘opening up an argument (against God, instead 
of accepting His words with docility and submission)’. It was exactly 
what they themselves did (when they dared to put the above- 
mentioned question to God). So what they said concerning Adam 
was what they themselves were actually doing toward God. It is 
evident, then, that, if their own nature had not been agreeable to this 
particular behavior, they would not have said about Adam what they 
said without being conscious (of the truth of the matter). Had they 
but known their own selves, (i.e., their own essential constitution), 
they would have known (the truth about Adam), and had they but 
known (the truth) they would never have committed such a mistake. 

In reality, however, they were not content with denigrating (Adam); 
they went even further and boastfully claimed that they were praising 
and sanctifying God. 30 


Sufism and Taoism 

But Adam had in himself such Divine Names as were not represented 
by the angels. The latter naturally could not praise God with those 
Names, nor could they sanctify Him with them, as Adam did. 31 

In the Qoran (II, 31) we read that ‘God taught Adam all the 
Names’. This means, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, that Man represents 
and actualizes all Divine Names. The angels, on the contrary, man- 
ifest only some of the Names. But they are not aware of it. 

The difference between the human and the angelic act of praising 
God which is discussed here by Ibn ‘Arab! is also based on the 
Qoranic verse which reads: ‘There is nothing (in the world) but 
praises Him in adoration, but you do not understand their praise’ 
(XVII, 44). 

The dictum that everything in the world is praising God has, for 
Ibn ‘Arabi, a very special meaning. God manifests Himself in all 
things, according to their peculiar capacities and within the limits 
determined by the latter. This fact, when considered from the side 
of the created things, is capable of being interpreted as the created 
things manifesting the Divine Perfection ( kamal ) in variously 
limited forms. This manifestation of the Divine Perfection by each 
thing in its peculiar form is what is understood by Ibn ‘Arabi under 
the word ‘praising’ ( tasbih ) or ‘sanctifying’ ( taqdis ). 

Otherwise expressed, all things ‘praise and sanctify’ God by the 
very fact that they exist in the world. But since each thing exists in its 
own peculiar way, each thing praises and sanctifies God in a differ- 
ent way from all the rest. And the higher the level of Being to which 
a thing belongs, the greater and stronger is its ‘praising and sanctify- 
ing’, because a higher being actualizes a greater number of Names 
than those which belong to lower levels. In this respect, Man 
occupies the highest position among all the beings of the world, 
because he is a locus in which all the Names, i.e., all the Perfections 
(kamalat) of God become manifested. 

We must recall at this juncture what we have observed in an 
earlier context about the essential indifference of Perfection 
(kamal) to the commonly accepted distinction between good and 
evil. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s world-view, the distinction which is ordinarily 
made in human societies between good and evil is of an entirely 
conventional, relative, and secondary nature. Primarily, existence 
itself is Perfection, and every ontological attribute is also a Perfec- 
tion. Just as ‘obedience’ (to God) is a Perfection, ‘disobedience’ is a 
Perfection, because the latter is in no less a degree than the former 
an ontological attribute, i.e., a form of Being. The fact that ‘obedi- 
ence’ is a Perfection has essentially nothing to do with its being 
ethically ‘good’; ‘obedience’ is a Perfection because it is a locus in 
which such Divine Names as the Merciful and the Bountiful are 

Man as Microcosm 


manifested. And ‘disobedience’ is a Perfection because it is a locus 
in which suth Names as the Vindictive and the Chastiser are 

If we lose sight of this basic ontological fact, we cannot under- 
stand why Ibp ‘ Arab! considers the position of Man higher than that 
of angels. Fr^rn the standpoint of Ibn ‘Arabi, the nature (tabVah) of 
angels is solely ‘spiritual’ (ruhiyah), while the nature of Man is 
‘spiritual-bodily’ (ruhiyah-badaniyah) and thus comprises all the 
attributes of Being, ranging from the highest to the lowest. And 
because of this particularly, Man is superior to angels. 32 

Regarding the highest position of Man in the hierarchy of Being, 
Ibn ‘Arabi discerns a deep symbolic meaning in the Qoranic state- 
ment that God created Adam ‘with both His hands’. 

God jointed His two hands for (creating) Adam. This He did solely 
by way of conferring upon him a great honor. And this is why He said 
to Iblis (Satan): ‘What hinders thee from falling prostrate before that 
which I have created with both My hands?’ (XXXVIII, 76). The 
(joining of His two hands) symbolizes nothing other than the fact that 
Adam join$ j n him two ‘forms’ : the form of the world and the form of 
the Absolute. These two are the ‘hands’ of God. 

Iblis, on th^ contrary, is but a part of the world, and this ‘gathering’ 
has not be^n given him. 33 

In a different passage of the Fwyfiy, Ibn ‘Arab! returns to the idea of 
God having created Adam with both His hands, and says: 34 

God kneaded the clay of Man with both His hands, which are 
opposed to each other, though, (in a certain sense), each one of His 
two hands is a right hand (i.e., both are exactly equal to each other in 
being powerful and merciful). In any case, there can be no doubt that 
there is a difference between the two if only for the reason that they 
are ‘two’, i.e., two hands. 

Nature is not affected except by what is proportional to it, and Nature 
itself is divided into pairs of opposition. That is why (it is said that 
God created Adam) with both His hands. 

And since He created Adam with both His hands, He named him 
bashar, is because of His ‘touching’ ( mubasharah ) him directly with 
the two haftds that are attributed to Him, the word ‘touching’ being 
taken here in a special sense which is applicable to the Divine 
Presence. 36 He did so as an expression of His special concern with this 
human species. And He said to (Iblis) who refused to fall prostrate 
before Adqrn: ‘What hinders thee from falling prostrate before that 
which I have created with both My hands? Dost thou scornfully look 
down’ upop one who is equal to thee, i.e., in being made of natural 
elements, ‘or art thou of a higher order’ which, in reality, thou art not 
- than elemental (‘unfurl) beings? 37 God means by ‘those of a higher 
order’ (‘alfn) those (spiritual beings) who, due to their luminous 



Sufism and Taoism 

Man as Microcosm 

constitution, transcend, by their own essence, being ‘elemental’, 
though they are ‘natural ’, 38 

Man is superior to other beings of the ‘elemental’ species only by 
being a bashar of clay (i.e., clay kneaded directly by the two hands of 
God). Thus he is higher than all that have been created of elements 
without having been touched by his hands. 

So Man is in rank higher than all the angels, terrestrial and celestial, 
although, according to the sacred texts, the archangels are superior to 
the human species. 

As a concrete example showing in the most perfect form possible 
the ‘comprehensiveness’ of the Perfect Man, Ibn ‘Arab! discusses 
Abraham (Ibrahim). 

In Islam, Abraham is generally known as the ‘intimate friend of 
God’ ( khatil Allah). Ibn ‘Arab! finds this phrase quite symbolic. 
But we must remember also that he understands the word khalil in a 
very special sense which is typical of his way of thinking. 

The word khalil appearing in the phrase khalil Allah means in 
ordinary understanding an ‘intimate friend’. 39 Ibn ‘Arabi explains 
the word by a completely different etymology; he derives it from 
takhallul which means ‘penetration’, ‘permeation’. The Perfect 
Man is the one whom the Absolute penetrates and whose faculties 
and bodily members are all permeated by the Absolute in such a 
way that he thereby manifests all the Perfections of the Divine 
Attributes and Names. 

We have already discussed in an earlier context the problem of 
Being running through ( sarayan ) all beings. The important point, 
for our immediate purpose, is that this sarayan or ‘pervasion’, 
although it is universal, differs in intensity or density from one thing 
to another. The sarayan of Being reaches its highest degree in the 
Perfect Man. And Being, that is, all the Perfections of the Absolute, 
permeate Man and become manifested in him both inwardly and 
outwardly. The title of honor of Abraham, khalil , symbolizes this 
fact. Ibn ‘Arabi himself gives the following explanation on this 
point: 40 

(Abraham) is called khalil for no other reason than that he ‘perme- 
ates’ , and comprises in himself, all (the qualities) by which the Divine 
Essence is qualified 41 . . . just as a color ‘permeates’ a colored object 
in such a way that the accident (i.e., the color) exists in all the parts of 
the substance. The relation is different from that between a place and 
an object occupying it. Or rather we should say that (Abraham is 
called khalil) because the Absolute ‘permeates’ the existence of the 
form of Abraham . 42 

Here Ibn ‘Arabi distinguishes between two forms of ‘permeation’ 
{takhallul): (1) one in which Man (symbolized by Abraham) plays 

the active role, Abraham appearing in the Form of the Absolute, 
and (2) the other in which the Absolute plays the active role, the 
Absolute appearing in the form of Abraham. The distinction was 
explained in an earlier context from a somewhat different point of 
view, when we discussed the idea of the bestowal of Being. What is 
of particular importance in the present context is that in the second 
type of ‘permeation’ the Absolute manifests itself in an individual- 
ized form, determined by the latter in its Existence, so that in this 
case creaturely attributes are ascribed to God, including even attri- 
butes denoting ‘defects’. 

Both these statements are right according to what God Himself 
affirms, for each of these aspects has its own proper field in which it is 
valid and which it never oversteps. 

Do you not see that God appears assuming the attributes that are 
peculiar to the temporal beings ? 43 He affirms this about Himself. 
Thus He assumes even attributes of defects and attributes of a 
blamable nature. 

Do you not see (on the other hand ) 44 that the creatures appear 
assuming the Attributes of the Absolute from the first Attribute to 
the very last? 

Thus all of them (i.e., all the Attributes of the Absolute) are necessar- 
ily and rightly to be ascribed to the creatures just as the attributes of 
the temporal beings are necessarily and rightly to be ascribed to the 

All the Attributes of the Absolute are to be affirmed of the crea- 
tures because the essential reality {haqiqah) of the latter is nothing 
other than the Absolute appearing with its own Reality in their 
forms, so that the Attributes of the Absolute are the attributes of 
the creatures. In the same way, all the attributes of the temporal 
beings are rightly to be affirmed of the Absolute, because these 
attributes are so many states and aspects of the Absolute. If the very 
existence of the temporal beings is the Existence of the Absolute as 
manifested in them, how much more should this be the case with the 
attributes of the temporal beings. 45 

Regarding the structure of the phenomenon of ‘permeation’, Ibn 
‘Arab! gives the following explanation: 46 

Know that whenever something ‘permeates’ ( takhallala ) another, the 
first is necessarily contained in the second. The permeater becomes 
veiled by the permeated, so that the passive one (i.e., the permeated) 
is the ‘outward’ while the active one (i.e., the permeater) is the 
‘inward’ which is invisible. Thus it (i.e., the permeater) is food for the 
other (i.e., the permeated), just as water permeates wool and makes 
the latter bigger and more voluminous. 

And when it is God that plays the part of the ‘outward’ , the creatures 
are hidden within Him, and they become all the Names of God, 


Sufism and Taoism 

namely. His hearing, His sight, etc., and all His relations and all His 
modes of cognition. But when it is the creatures that play the role of 
the ‘outward’, God becomes hidden in them, being inside of them, 
and God (in this case) is the hearing of the creatures, their sight, their 
hands and feet, and all their faculties. 

Thus the ontological ‘permeation’ is completely reciprocal between 
the Absolute and the world, and the Perfect Man represents this 
reciprocal ‘permeation’ in its most perfect form. Abraham is a 
typical example of this phenomenon. 

Ill The Vicegerency of God 

The Perfect Man is the ‘vicegerent’ (khalifah) of God on the earth, 
or in the world of Being. Reference has been made earlier to this 
concept in an incidental way. The present section will be devoted to 
a more detailed and concentrated discussion of this problem. 

The Perfect Man is entitled to be the ‘vicegerent’ of God because 
of his ‘comprehensiveness’. This idea, which has been mentioned 
more than once in what precedes, will furnish us with a good 
starting-point for an analysis of the concept of vicegerency. 

After having stated that Man alone in the whole world possesses 
the unique property of ‘being comprehensive’ ( jam‘iyah ), Ibn 
‘Arab! goes on to argue : 47 

Iblis (Satan) was but a part of the world, having no such ‘comprehen- 
siveness’. But Adam was a ‘vicegerent’ because of this ‘comprehen- 
siveness’. If he had not appeared in the Form of God who appointed 
him as His ‘vicegerent’ to take care of the things (i.e., the world and 
everything in the world) in His stead, he would not have been His 
‘vicegerent’. 48 If, on the other hand, he had not contained in himself 
all the things of the world and all that was demanded of him by those 
people over whom he had been commanded to exercise sovereign 
power, (he would not have been His ‘vicegerent’). For the people 
depended upon him, and he was naturally expected to take care of all 
the needs of the people. Otherwise, he would not have been a 
‘vicegerent’ governing them (in the place of the King). 

Thus no one was entitled to be the ‘vicegerent’ except the Perfect 
Man, for God created his ‘outward’ form out of all the realities and 
forms of the world, 49 and his ‘inward’ form on the model of His own 
Form. 50 This is why God says (in a Tradition): ‘I am his hearing and 
his sight’ . It is to be remarked that God does not say: 1 1 am his eye and 
his ear’. God distinguishes here between the two forms (i.e., the 
outward form and the inward form). 

The same holds true of everything existent in the world (i.e., just as 
God appears in Adam in his form, so He appears in everything in 
its peculiar form) in accordance with the requirement of the reality of 

Man as Microcosm 


each thing. However, nothing in the world possesses the ‘comprehen- 
siveness’ which is possessed by the ‘vicegerent’. In fact he has 
obtained (his vicegerency) only because of his ‘comprehensiveness’. 

In another passage Ibn ‘ Arabi considers again the same problem of 
‘vicegerency’ of Man based on the ‘comprehensiveness’ of his con- 
stitution. This time he approaches the problem from a somewhat 
different angle . 51 

(The Perfect Man) is Man, temporally produced (in his body), but 
eternal (i.e., having no temporal origin, with regard to his spirit), 
something that grows up forever, the Word that distinguishes (bet- 
ween possibility and necessity) and gathers (them) together. The 
universe reached completion when he came into existence. He is to 
the universe what the bezel is to the seal. He is (comparable to) the 
place (of the seal) where there is engraved the device with which the 
king seals his treasuries. 

This is the reason why God has called him a ‘vicegerent’ , 52 because he 
acts as the guardian of His creatures just as the treasuries (of the 
king) are guarded by a seal. For as long as the royal seal is upon them, 
no one dares to open them unless the king gives permission. 

Thus God has appointed him as the ‘vicegerent’ in the guarding of the 
universe. The universe will remain guarded as long as there is in the 
universe the Perfect Man. 

Do you not see that when he departs (from the present world) and the 
seal of the treasuries is broken, there will not remain in the world that 
which God has stored there, and all that are therein will come out and 
will become confused one with another and everything will be trans- 
ported to the Hereafter? And there (in the next world) he (i.e., the 
Perfect Man) will again become a seal on the treasury of the Here- 
after to remain there as the seal for ever and ever. 

The whole world of Being, or the universe, is the ‘treasury’ of God, 
and of God alone. And Man is a custodian and curator ( wakil ) 
whom God Himself has put in charge of the guardianship of the 
treasury. This idea, which is the only right one concerning the 
position of Man in the cosmic order, is according to Ibn ‘Arabi, an 
idea peculiar to the ‘people of Muhammad’. 

Unlike Noah who had called his people exclusively to tanzih , 
Muhammad called his people to both tanzih and tashbih . 53 He called 
them to tanzih because the whole universe is a possession of God, 
and of God alone. He called them to tashbih , emphasizing thereby 
the human element in the created world, because God Himself has 
put the administration of His own possession in the hands of Man as 
His ‘vicegerent’. Man is not the real owner of the ‘treasury’, but he 
has the status of its ‘ curator’ . 54 And Man owes this high status to the 
fact that he is the only existent in the whole world of Being in whom 
all the Attributes and Names of the Absolute are manifested. 



Sufism and Taoism 

IV The Reality of Muhammad 

The ‘Reality of Muhammad’ ( haqiqah Muhammad or al-haqiqah 
al-muhammadiyah) , is one of the most important concepts in the 
philosophy of Ibn ‘ Arabi. But since it has been dealt with in detail by 
Affifi, as Ibn ‘ArabFs doctrine of the logos, in his Philosophy , 55 I 
shall be content here with discussing it only as an aspect of the 
problem of the Perfect Man. 

All prophets, in Ibn ‘Arabi's view, are embodiments of the idea of 
the Perfect Man. But the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad, occupies 
among them a very special place. What is particularly important 
about Muhammad is that he had been a cosmic being before he was 
raised as an individual prophet at a certain moment of human 
history in the Capacity of God’s Messenger to the Arabs. Ibn ‘Arabi 
bases this conception on a well-known Tradition in which Muham- 
mad describes himself as a being of a cosmic nature by saying: ‘I was 
a prophet even while Adam was between clay and water’ , 56 

Ontologically, Muhammad as a cosmic being who existed from 
eternity corresponds to, or represents, the level of the permanent 
archetypes; that is, the level of Being ‘which is neither existent nor 
non-existent’, the intermediary stage ( barzakh ) between the abso- 
lute Absolute and the world which is the outer self-manifestation of 
the Absolute. This intermediary stage is divine in so far as it is 
identified with the Divine Consciousness, but it is, at the same time, 
essentially creaturely or human in that it has significance only as it is 
related to the created world. The intermediary stage in this latter 
aspect, i.e., considered in its human aspect, is the Reality 
of Muhammad. And it is also the Perfect Man on the cosmic 

Thus understood, the Reality of Muhammad is not exactly the 
permanent archetypes themselves. Rather, it is the unifying princi- 
ple of all archetypes, the active principle on which depends the very 
existence of the archetypes. Considered from the side of the Abso- 
lute, the Reality of Muhammad is the creative activity itself of the 
Absolute, or God ‘conceived as the self-revealing Principle of the 
universe’ . 57 It is the Absolute in the first stage of its eternal self- 
manifestation, i.e., the Absolute as the universal Consciousness. 

It is also called ontologically, the ‘Reality of realities’ ( haqiqah 
al-haqa’iq ). The ‘Reality of realities’ is ultimately nothing but the 
Absolute, but it is not the Absolute in its primordial absoluteness; it 
is the very first form in which the Absolute begins to manifest itself. 
And this Divine Consciousness is reflected most faithfully by the 
self-consciousness of the Perfect Man. The Perfect Man, in this 
sense, is the outwardly manifested Consciousness of God. Thus the 

Man as Microcosm 

Prophet Muhammad on the cosmic level corresponds almost 
exactly to the Plotinian First Intellect. 

Muhammad, as the Perfect Man on the cosmic level, is the first of 
all self-determinations ( ta‘ayyundt ) of the Absolute. Theologically, 
it is the first ‘creature’ of God. 

Basing himself on a Tradition: ‘the first thing which God created 
was my Light’, Ibn ‘Arab! calls the Reality of Muhammad also the 
‘Light of Muhammad’ ( al-niir al-muhammadiy). This Light had 
been existent even before all the creatures came into existence. It is, 
in this sense, ‘eternal (a parte ante)' ( qadim ), and ‘non-temporal 
( ghayr hadith ). And this eternal Light went on being manifested in 
successive prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus etc., 
until it reached its final historical manifestation, the Prophet 

Since the Light was that which God created before anything else 
and that from which he created everything else, it was the very basis 
of the creation of the world. And it was ‘Light’ because it was 
nothing else than the First Intellect, i.e., the Divine Consciousness, 
by which God manifested Himself to Himself in the state of the 
Absolute Unity. And the Light is in its personal aspect the Reality 
of Muhammad. 

Regarding Muhammad’s being the first self-determination of the 
Absolute and his being, therefore, the most comprehensive and the 
highest, al-Qashani writes : 58 

(Muhammad was) the first self-determination with which the 
Essence at the level of Unity determined itself before any other forms 
of self-determination. So all the infinite self-determinations became 
actualized through him. As we have seen above, all the self- 
determinations (of the Absolute) are arranged in a hierarchy of 
genera, species, kinds, and individuals, all being disposed in a vertical 
order. So (Muhammad) comprises in himself all these self- 
determinations without leaving anything. He is, in this sense, unique 
in the whole world of Being; nothing can compete with him, because 
nothing is found equal to him in the hierarchy. In fact, there is above 
him only the Essence at the level of its absolute Unity, which trans- 
cends all self-determinations, whether that of an attribute, name, 
description, definition, or qualification. 

Such being the case, it will be evident that Muhammad, as the 
Logos, is the most perfect being within the species of man. 

He was the most perfect being of the human species. This is why the 
whole process of creation was commenced and finished through him. 

4 He was a prophet even while Adam was between water and clay’ (as 
the cosmic Logos), but later (i.e., in historical time) he was born 
compounded of elements (i.e., in a bodily form) and proved to be the 


Sufism and Taoism 

final seal of the prophets . . . (As an individual), Muhammad was the 
most powerful proof of his Lord, because he had been given all the 
‘words’ ( kalim ) which were the very contents of the names 59 (of all 
the things of the world) which (the Lord taught) Adam. 60 

As has been touched upon earlier in this section, Muhammad as the 
first creature of the Absolute clearly corresponds to the First Intel- 
lect of Plotinus, which is the ‘first emanation’ from the absolute 
One. And in this aspect Muhammad is called by Ibn ‘Arab! the 
‘Muhammadan Spirit’ (al-riih al-muhammadiy) . 

In the world-view of Plotinus, the Nus, the first emanation from 
the One, has two aspects: (1) it is ‘passive’ in relation to that from 
which it has emanated, and (2) ‘active’ in relation to that which 
emanates from itself. It is ‘passive’ toward the higher level of Being 
and ‘active’ toward the lower level of Being. 

In the particular context of Ibn ‘ Arabi’s philosophy, this Plotinian 
‘passivity’ ( inftal ) changes into ‘servant-ness’ (‘ ubiidiyah ) and the 
‘activity’ (fi‘l) becomes ‘Lordship’ ( rubublyah ). Thus the 
‘Muhammadan Spirit’ stands in the position of ‘passivity’, i.e., 
‘servant-ness’, in relation to the Creator, i.e., the source of its own 
appearance and manifestation, while in relation to the world it 
shows a thoroughgoing ‘activity’, acting as it does as the first prin- 
ciple of creation. Ibn ‘ Arab! explains this as follows in a mythopoe- 
tic form: 61 

Muhammad (i.e., the ‘ Muhammadan Spirit’) was created basically as 
a ‘servant’. So he never dared raise his head seeking to be a master. 
Nay, he kept humbly prostrating and never transgressing the state of 
being ‘passive’, until, when God had produced from him all that He 
produced, He conferred upon him the rank of ‘activity’ over the 
world of (Divine) breaths. 

Muhammad, in this respect, shows perfectly his ‘intermediary 
nature’ (barzakhiyah) . He is a ‘servant’ and is ‘passive’ vis-a-vis the 
Absolute, but he is a ‘lord’ and is ‘active’ vis-a-vis the world. 

V The Perfect Man and God 

The Absolute, in its self-revealing aspect, reaches perfection in the 
Perfect Man. In the latter the Absolute manifests itself in the most 
perfect form, and there can be no self-manifestation more perfect 
than this. The Perfect Man, in this respect, is the Absolute, while 
being at the same time a creature. We know already what Ibn ‘ Arabi 
means when he says that Man is the Absolute. Man is the Absolute 
because of his essential ‘comprehensiveness’, or because, as Ibn 
‘Arab! says, God put into Adam, the human species, all of its 

Man as Microcosm 


Attributes, whether active of passive. After stating that God joined 
both His hands ‘to knead the clay of Adam’ and created him in this 
particular way, Ibn ‘Arab! goes on to say: 62 

Then (i.e-., after having created Adam) God made him behold all that 
He had put into him, and grasped the whole in His two hands: in the 
one, He held the universe, and in the other, Adam and his offspring. 

This passage is explicated by al-Qashanl in the following terms: 63 

This means that God let the Real Man ( al-insan al-haqiqiy ) observe 
all the Divine secrets (i.e., invisible realities which are actualized at 
the ontological level of the all-comprehensive Name Allah) which He 
had placed in him, then put together the whole of what He had 
created and the whole of what He had placed in Adam, grasping them 
with his both hands. He placed in His right hand, which is His 
stronger hand, the reality of Adam and his descendants, i.e., all His 
active Attributes and His (active) Names belonging to the higher 
spiritual world, and in the left hand, which is the weaker hand, the 
forms of the world, i.e., His passive (lit. receiving) Attributes and His 
(passive) Names belonging properly to the physical world. 

(This distinction between the right and the left hand as the stronger 
and the weaker is not an essential one, for) each of the two hands of 
the Merciful is in truth a right hand. (And, consequently, there is no 
real distinction in terms of rank between the two kinds of the Attri- 
butes) because the ‘receptivity’ ( qabiliyah ) with regard to the power 
of ‘receiving’ is perfectly equal to the ‘positive activity’ (Ja‘iliyah ) 
with regard to the power of ‘acting’, the former being in no way 
inferior to the latter. 

Since Man in whom God has thus placed everything is His perfect 
image, whatever can be predicated of Man can also be predicated, at 
least in a certain sense, of God, And this is what is meant by the 
dictum: Man is the Absolute. 

Is there, then, no essential difference between Man as the Micro- 
cosm, i.e., the Perfect Man and the Absolute? Of course, there is, 
and a very essential one. The difference lies in the ‘necessity 
( wujub ) of existence. 

You must know that since, as we have said every temporal thing 
appears in His Form, clearly God has so arranged that we should, in 
trying to know Him, resort to studying carefully the temporal things. 
Thus He Himself tells us (in the Qoran, XLI, 53) that He shows us 
His signs in the temporal things, 64 so that we might infer from our 
own states the state of God. And by whatever quality we may 
describe Him, we ourselves are that very quality. The only exception 
from this is the ‘essential necessity’ ( wujub dhatiy ) which is peculiar 
to God alone. 

Since we come to know God, in this way, by ourselves, it is natural 
that we should attribute to Him whatever we attribute to ourselves. 


Sufism and Taoism 

This is confirmed by that of which God Himself has informed through 
the tongues of the interpreters (i.e., the prophets). In fact He has 
described Himself to us through us. Thus, whenever we observe Him 
(through some attribute) we are observing (through the same attri- 
bute) our own selves. And whenever He observes us, He is observing 

No one will doubt that we are many as individuals and species. 
Certainly, all of us have in common one and the same ‘reality’ (or 
‘essence’) which unites us, but we know definitely that there is also a 
distinction by which are distinguished all the individuals one from 
another. If it were not for this distinction there would not be multi- 
plicity within the unity. Likewise, though God describes us precisely 
with what He describes Himself with, there must be a distinction 
(between us and God). And that distinction can consist only in our 
essential need (for Him) regarding our existence, and the depen- 
dence of our existence upon Him because of our ‘possibility’, and in 
His being absolutely free from all such need. 65 

Thus the Absolute and the creatures are the same in a certain 
respect, but a fundamental distinction separates the one from the 
other: the ‘necessity of existence’ ( wujub al-wujiid) which is pecul- 
iar to the Absolute alone. And due to this ‘necessity’, the Absolute 
has certain Attributes which are not shared by anything else, like 
quidam (‘eternity a parte ante ’ and ‘eternity a parte post'). 

It is to be remarked that, though this is philosophically the only 
real difference between God and the creatures, it is an essential and 
fundamental difference. And being a fundamental difference, it 
determines the position of Man in a decisive way vis-a-vis God. Man 
is certainly the highest of all in the world of Being. To him is 
ascribed an ontological ‘height’ (‘uluw). The ‘height’, however, 
is not the ‘height’ of the Absolute. Unlike the latter, Man’s ‘height’ is 
only ‘consequential’ ( bi-al-tab‘iyah ) or ‘secondary’; it is not an 
‘essential ( dhatiy ) height’. 

In the Qoran (XL VII, 35) God says to the followers of Muham- 
mad: ‘You are the highest and so is God, too, with you’ , 66 This verse, 
Ibn ‘Arab! says, might suggest that God and Man share the same 
‘height’. But such an understanding is completely wrong. For God 
definitely denies such an equality in ‘height’ between Himself and 

Although Man is the ‘highest’ in a particular sense and partici- 
pates with God in the ‘height’ in the general connotation of the 
word, the real content of the ‘height’ is different when the word is 
applied to God from when it is applied to Man. A Peripatetic 
philosopher would simplify the matter by saying that the same word 
a‘la (‘highest’) is here used secundum prius et posterius. This is 
clearly what is meant by al-Qashani when he says: 67 

Man as Microcosm 


The participation (of Man) in ‘being the highest’ , which God affirms 
of him is liable to produce the wrong view that Man does participate 
(with God) in the same height of rank. So He says: ‘Praise the Name 
of thy Lord, the Highest’ (LXXXVII, 1) in order to deny categori- 
cally the possibility of such participation. In fact, the absolute and 
essential ‘height’ belongs to God, and to God alone. He is the highest 
by His Essence, in an absolute sense, not in relation to anything other 
than Himself. Thus all ‘height’ belongs properly to Him alone, and 
everything to which His ‘height’ is attributed (i.e., everything that is 
said to be ‘high’) is ‘high’ according to the degree in which God 
manifests himself under the Name ‘High’ {‘aliy). 

Nothing really participates with Him in the very source of the 
‘height’ . God has no ‘height’ in a relative sense, while all other things 
become ‘high’ through His Name ‘High’. 

Ibn ‘Arab! further stresses the non-essential nature of the ‘height’ of 
Man by pointing out that although Man, i.e., the Perfect Man, is the 
highest of all beings, his ‘height’ does not properly belong to him- 
self, but rather to the ‘place’ 68 that has been assigned to him. What is 
high is not so much Man himself as his ‘place’ . This is why God says: 
‘And We raised him to a high place’ (XIX, 57). It is worthy of 
remark that the adjective (‘aliy) in this verse qualifies ‘place’ 
( makan ), not Man. Likewise, Man’s being the ‘vicegerent’ of God 
on the earth is simply the ‘height’ of place or position; it is not his 
essential ‘height’. 

The preceding pages have clarified Ibn ‘Arabi’s thesis that the 
‘ height’ of man is not of an essential nature . But whatever the nature 
of his ‘height’, it is true that Man is ‘high’ or even the ‘highest’ of all 
beings. Here Ibn ‘Arab! points out a very paradoxical fact about 
Man. Certainly, Man is the highest of all beings as long as we 
consider him ideally. But once we open our eyes to the real situation 
of human existence, we find the strange fact that, far from being 
‘high’ or ‘highest’, Man is the ‘lowest’ of all in the whole world of 
Being. Of course, in doing so we are taking a very particular point 
of view. But at least from this particular point of view, the hierarchy 
of values becomes completely reversed. For in this new system, the 
inanimate beings occupy the highest rank, then the plants, then the 
animals, and the human beings are found in the lowest position. 

Usually, Man is considered the highest of all beings because of his 
Reason (‘ aql ). But, in truth, this very Reason which is peculiar to 
Man weaves around him an opaque veil which develops into an 
‘ego’. And the ‘ego’ thus produced hinders Man from knowing 
the Absolute as it really is. Precisely because of his Reason, Man 
cannot but be a ‘mirror which reflects the Absolute only with 



Sufism and Taoism 

There is no creature higher than minerals; then come the plants with 
their various degree and ranks. The plants are followed by those 
possessed of the senses (i.e. , animals). Each of these (three classes of 
beings) knows its own Creator through natural intuition or through 
an immediate evidential knowledge. But what is called Adam (i.e., 
Man) is shackled by Reason and thinking or is in the pillory of 
belief. 69 

The inanimate things, or ‘minerals’, have no ego. So they are 
obedient to God’s commandments absolutely and unconditionally. 
Their ‘servant-ness’ (‘ ubudiyah ) is perfect in this sense. They are 
exposed naked to God’s activity upon them, there being no veil at 
all between them. In this respect, they occupy the highest place in 
the hierarchy of Being. 

The second position is given to the plants. They grow, assimilate 
nourishment, and generate. To that extent they act positively on 
their own accord. And to that extent they are farther removed from 
the Absolute than the minerals. 

The third position is occupied by the animals. They are possessed 
of senses, and they show the activity of will. The sense perception 
and will disclose a certain amount of ego. But the animal ego is not 
as strong as that of Man. 

These three, the minerals, plants, and animals, having no Reason, 
know God by a natural ‘unveiling’ or immediate evidential know- 
ledge. Man, on the contrary, possesses Reason, and the Reason 
develops his ego to a full extent, and he becomes veiled by his own 

Thus from the viewpoint of the ideal state of ‘servant-ness’, Man is 
situated on the lowest level on the scale of Being. In order to climb 
the scale upward, he must first of all dispel from himself Reason - 
which is, paradoxically, exactly the thing that makes him a Man - 
and bring to naught all the properties that derive from Reason. Only 
when he succeeds in doing so, does he ascend to the rank of animals. 
He must then go on to ascend to the rank of plants, and thence 
finally to the rank of minerals. Then only does he find himself in the 
highest position on the whole scale of Being. There will no longer 
remain in him even a shadow of Reason, and the Light of the 
Absolute will illumine him undimmed, unhindered, in its original 

These considerations make us aware of the fact that Man as an Idea 
is per se ‘perfect’ and occupies the highest position, but that in his 
actual situation he is far from being a perfect realization of his own 
ideal. We can maintain that Man is the highest being in the world 

Man as Microcosm 

only when we take the viewpoint of a philosophical anthropology 
standing on the supposition that the ideal of Man is perfectly real- 
ized in the actual Man. The actual Man, however, is a being in full 
possession of Reason, a being dependent upon his Reason and 
brandishing it everywhere in his understanding of everything. He 
who brandishes his Reason is not capable of penetrating the mys- 
tery of Being. 

But while making this observation, we realize that we are already 
far removed from the sphere in which we began our discussion of 
Man. We started from the basic assumption that Man can be consi- 
dered on two entirely different levels: cosmic and individual. And 
the purpose of the present chapter has been to elucidate the concept 
of Man on the cosmic level, as Microcosm. And on this level, Man is 
certainly the highest of all beings. However, in the last section of this 
chapter, we have been moving down to the concept of Man on the 
individual level. We have learnt that on this latter level, Man is, in a 
certain sense, even lower than animals, plants and minerals. On this 
level, not all men, but only a small number of special men are 
worthy to be called ‘perfect men’. They are ‘perfect’ because, hav- 
ing already died to their own ego through the mystical experience of 
self-annihilation and subsistence, they are no longer veiled by 
Reason. The next chapter will be devoted to a more detailed con- 
sideration of the idea of the Perfect Man on the individual level. 


1. Fu$., p. 8/48. 

2. Fu$., p. 9/48. 

3. Fuj., p. 11/49; p. 132/115. 

4. p. 11. 

5. Fu$., p. 9/48-49. 

6. p. 10. 

7. p. 11. 

8. I read with Qaygari: tulqi ilay-hi bi-taqallub min wajh. 

9. Al- Qashani says that this is the case when the Absolute manifests itself in the very 
form of a Perfect Man - p. 42. 

10. Fu$., pp. 41—42/66-67. 

11. Fw>., p. 232/184. 


244 Sufism and Taoism 

12. Fw>., pp. 251-253/198-199. 

13. The ‘great river’ Nile symbolizes an ocean of Knowledge into which Moses’ body 
was thrown in order that he might acquire all the possible perfections by which Man is 
distinguished from all other beings - cf. Affifi, Fuy., Com., p. 293. 

14. sakinah from the Hebrew shekina meaning the Divine Presence. Here it means 
the ‘Divine aspect’ ( lahut ) of man to be correlated with the above-mentioned nasut. 

15. ‘its form (surah)' , that is, the form of the world. The meaning of this expression 
will be clarified by al-Qashani’ s explanatory remark which will immediately follow 
the present passage. 

16. This is tantamount to saying that God governs all the things in the world by 
means of their permanent archetypes. 

17. p. 252. 

18. Here, be it noticed, Ibn ‘Arabi understands Man not on the cosmic, but on the 
individual level. 

19. As we shall see presently, Man occupies a higher position than angels in the 
world-view of Ibn ‘Arabi. 

20. The ‘Divine Form’ ( al-surah al-ilahlyah ) itself means nothing else than the 
whole of the Divine Names. 

21. Fu$., p. 14/50. 

22. Fuy., p. 12/49. 

23. Fwj., 13/49-50. 

24. On this concept see later, III. 

25. Fuy., p. 180/143. The explanatory words that follow the verses are by al- 

26. Fuy., p. 21/54. 

27. Fuy., pp. 25-26/56. 

28. Reference to the Qoran, II, 30-33. 

29. ‘ibadah dhatlyah ‘essential service’ means, as we have seen above, the perfect 
and complete adoration of God which consists in that an existent actualizes in itself 
all the Names. 

30. ‘Art Thou going to place on the earth one who will do harm therein and shed 
blood, when we are praising and sanctifying Thee?’ (II, 30). 

31. Fas., pp. 14-15/50-51. 

32. Although, to be sure, he is not superior to all the angels, as we shall see. 

Man as Microcosm 

33. Fu!>., pp. 22-23/55. 

34. Fu$., p. 184/144-145. 

35. Reference to the Qoran, XV, 28: inni khaliqun basharan, etc. Bashar means 
‘ man’ considered from the point of view of his being ‘ mortal’ . But Ibn ‘ Arabi in this 
passage understands the word in terms of the verb bdshara (inf. mubasharah) 
meaning ‘to touch something directly with one’s own hands’. 

36. That is to say, in a non-material, non-anthropomorphic, sense. 

37. Qoran, XXXVIII, 76. 

38. They stand above the sphere of elements, though they are of the domain of 

39. From khullah , meaning ‘sincere friendship’. 

40. pp. 71-72/80-81. 

41. According to al-Qashani, this means the appearance of Abraham in the Form of 
the Absolute in such a way that the Absolute is his hearing, his sight, and all his other 
faculties - p. 72. 

42. This means that the Absolute, by being ‘determined’ by the ‘determination’ of 
Abraham, becomes qualified by the attributes of Abraham and his form, so that all 
the attributes that are ascribed to Abraham are ascribed to the Absolute, too. The 
result of this process is that God does whatever He does through Abraham, hears by 
his hearing, and sees with his eyes - al-Qashani, p. 71. 

43. Here Ibn ‘Arabi takes up the second type of ‘permeation’ first. 

44. This refers to the first type of ‘permeation’. 

45. Qashani, p. 72. 

46. Fuy., p. 73/81. 

47. Fuy., pp. 23-24/55. 

48. ‘because a vicegerent should know the will of the man who has appointed him as 
his representative, so that he might carry out his command. Thus if the vicegerent of 
God does not know Him with all His Attributes, he would not be able to carry out His 
Command’ - al-Qashani, p. 23. 

49. so that everything that exists in the world is reflected in Man by a corresponding 

50. so that his inner form is modeled on the Name and Attributes of God. Thus he is 
‘hearing’, ‘seeing’, ‘knowing’ etc., as God Himself is, i.e., he is qualified by all the 
Divine Attributes. 

51. Fuy., pp. 13-14/50. 


Sufism and Taoism 

52. ‘The engraved seal is the Greatest of all the Divine Names, namely, the Divine 
Essence with all the Names. This seal is engraved on the ‘heart’ of the Perfect Man, 
which is symbolized here by the bezel of the royal seal. Thus the Perfect Man guards 
the treasury of the universe with all that is contained therein, and keeps them in the 
established order’ - al-Qashani, p. 13. 

53. Cf. Chapter IV 

54. Cf. Fuy., p. 53/71. 

55. Chapter V, pp. 66-101. For a discussion of the historical relation between this 
Islamic /og<w-doctrine and the /ogo^-Christology see Arthur Jeffery: Ibn aI-‘Arabi’s 
Shajarat al-Kawn (Studia Islamica, X, Paris, 1959, pp. 45-62). 

56. Kantu nabiy wa-Adam bayna al-ma’ wa-al-fin. 

57. Affifi, Philosophy , p. 69. 

58. p. 266. 

59. Reference to the Qoran, II, 31. 

60. Fuy., p. 267/214. 

61. Fu$., p. 275/220. 

62. Fu$., p. 26/56. 

63. p. 26. 

64. ‘We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves’. 

65. Fuy., p. 19/53-54. 

66. Wa-antum al-a‘lawna wa-Allahu ma‘a-kum. Ibn ‘Arabi’s interpretation of this 
verse (‘you are the highest and God, too, is the highest with you’) is quite an original 
one. Contextually, the verse simply means: ‘you, believers, will surely win (in your 
struggle with the disbelievers) for God is with you (i.e., on your side)’. 

67. p. 62. 

68. either in the sense of makan, i.e., physical place, or makanah, i.e., non-material 
place, position or rank. 

69. Fuy., pp. 82-83/85. The original is a part of a poem. 

XV The Perfect Man as an Individual 

At the outset of the preceding chapter I pointed out that Man, in the 
thought of Ibn ‘Arabi, is conceived on two different levels, cosmic 
and individual. The present chapter will be concerned with the 
second of these two levels. 

Man on the first level, or - logically - Man as a species, is in the 
intermediary stage between the Absolute and the world, and, as an 
intermediary, occupies the highest position in the hierarchy of the 
created beings. As soon as we begin to consider Man on the indi- 
vidual level, however, we cannot help noticing the existence of 
many degrees ( maratib ). Otherwise expressed, on the cosmic level 
Man himself is the Perfect Man, but on the individual level not all 
men are ‘perfect’ ; on the contrary, only a few deserve the title of the 
Perfect Man. 

How is it possible that a such a fundamental difference should 
occur between the two levels? Any man, as long as he is a ‘man’, is 
expected to have the ‘comprehensiveness’ actualized in him, 
because the ontological ‘comprehensiveness’ belongs to the very 
nature of the human species. There can be no possible exception in 
this respect. Ontologically, there can be no difference in this respect 
between one individual and another. All this is certainly true. But 
individual differences arise in accordance with the degrees of lucid- 
ity in the mind of those who become conscious of this very fact. All 
men are naturally endowed with the same ontological ‘comprehen- 
siveness’ but not all men are equally conscious of the ‘comprehen- 
siveness’ in themselves. They are variously conscious of it, ranging 
from the highest degree of lucidity which comes very close to that of 
the Divine Consciousness of the Names and Attributes, down to the 
lowest which is practically the same as complete opaqueness. And 
only at the highest degree of lucidity can the human mind play the 
role of a ‘polished mirror’. Only at the highest degree of lucidity can 
Man be the Perfect Man. This is the gist of the whole problem. 

In a passage of the Fu$us, Ibn ‘Arab! writes: ‘God has brought to 
light their various degrees in him (i.e., Adam)’. 1 Here the pronoun 


Sufism and Taoism 

‘their’ refers to the sons of Adam. Thus the meaning of this short 
sentence may be paraphrased as: ‘God has made clear the existence 
of various degrees among men within Adam, i.e., the same one 
species of Man’ . 

The cause which brings into being such degrees among individual 
men is explained by Ibn ‘Arabi through the metaphor of colored 
glass, a metaphor which we have met in an earlier context. Just as 
one and the same light is variously colored as it passes through 
pieces of glass of various colors, the same Form of the Absolute is 
differently manifested in different men with different capacities . 2 

A man who has ‘actualized in himself the Absolute’ (al- 
mutahaqqiq bi-al-haqq ) is completely permeated by the Absolute, 
so much so that each of his bodily members is a self-manifestation of 
the Absolute. And yet, when such men - the people of God (ahl 
Allah) - obtain knowledge by ‘immediate tasting’ , one and the same 
knowledge becomes variously inflected according to the capacities 
of individual organs. 

Know that all mystical knowledges which, originating from the 
ontological level of the Name Allah, are actualized in the people of 
God, differ from each other according to the differences in the 
cognitive faculties through which they are actualized, although all 
these knowledges are derived ultimately from one source. This last 
point is proved by the fact that God Himself declares (in a well- 
known Tradition): ‘I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight 
with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, his foot with which 
he walks’, God declares in this way that His He- ness ( huwiyah ) is 
the very bodily members, which, in their turn, are the man himself. 
The He-ness is one, and the bodily members (of the man in whom the 
He-ness is actualized) are diverse. And each of his bodily members 
has a special knowledge by ‘immediate tasting’ which is peculiar to it 
and which is derived from the unique source (from which all the other 
bodily members obtain their peculiar knowledges). Thus (the same 
knowledge coming from one source) becomes differentiated by the 
different bodily members . 3 

In the passage just quoted, Ibn ‘Arabi is speaking of the inflection of 
one and the same intuitive cognition in one and the same man 
through his different bodily members. He is not talking about 
differences in intuition among different ‘men of God’. He describes 
here simply how one knowledge coming from one source becomes 
differently modulated in one man according to which of his faculties 
is used. But if in one and the same man the situation is like that, it is 
naturally to be expected that even greater differences should arise 
in different individuals. In his commentary on this passage, al- 
Qashanl understands it in this sense and says : 4 

The Perfect Man as an Individual 


Knowledges by ‘immediate tasting’ are differentiated by the differ- 
ence of natural capacities (lit. ‘preparedness’), because the ‘people of 
God’ do not all stand on one level. And this causes a difference in 
their ‘tasting’ experiences and (the resulting) knowledges . . . just as 
one and the same person obtains different knowledges through dif- 
ferent faculties. Differences arise (in both cases) in spite of the fact 
that all these knowledges go back to one single source, which is the 
He-ness of the Absolute. 

Ibn ‘Arabi himself explains this phenomenon by comparing it to 
water which may have different tastes despite the oneness of its 

This may be understood by the example of water. Water is every- 
where one single reality, but it has different tastes according to 
places. Here it is sweet, there it is salty and bitter. And yet water is 
water in all the states; its reality does not become different however 
different its tastes may be . 5 

The above explanation gives the ontological cause from which all 
differences and degrees occur among men. In addition to this, Ibn 
‘Arabi gives another, theological cause for the same phenomenon: 
the ‘jealousy’ ( ghayrah ) of God. 

The idea of God being ‘jealous’ ( ghayur ) goes back historically to 
a very old Semitic conception of God. And it plays also a consider- 
ably important part in Sufism. 

Now ‘jealousy’ in reference to God is capable of being under- 
stood in various meanings. God is ‘jealous’, for example, because 
He does not like the secret between Him and His servants be 
disclosed to others. Or God is ‘jealous’ in the sense that He forbids 
that anything other than Himself be adored and worshipped. Ibn 
‘Arabi understands the idea of Divine ‘jealousy’ in terms of the 
concept of ‘self-manifestation’ {tajalli). 

The Absolute, he says, manifests itself endlessly; it freely dis- 
closes and reveals its inner mysteries. And yet the Absolute is, 
paradoxically enough, ‘jealous’ of its mysteries, in the sense that it 
conceals them from the eyes of ordinary men. From this particular 
point of view, Ibn ‘Arabi goes even to the extent of calling the 
Divine self-manifestations fawahish (sg. fahishah meaning literally 
‘shameful thing’ ‘something scandalous or disgraceful’). Here he is 
looking at the whole matter from, so to speak, the subjective view- 
point of the Absolute itself. God’s feeling, Ibn ‘Arabi surmises, 
would be that He should not have disclosed his secrets, that He 
should rather have kept them forever hidden in Himself. On the 
human level, it is always an act of shamelessness for man to disclose 
to the eyes of the public what he should keep concealed. 
Furthermore, Ibn ‘Arabi exercises here again his favorite method 

250 Sufism and Taoism 

of thinking by phonetic associations, and connects the word ghayrah 
(jealously) with ghayr (‘other’). 

God admits that He has the Attribute of ‘jealousy’ (ghayrah). It is out 
of ‘jealousy’ that He ‘has forbidden the shameful things (fawahish )’ 

(V, 33). 

But ‘shameful’ is only that which has been made openly manifest 
(while in truth it should have been kept concealed.) As to what is kept 
within, it is ‘shameful’ only to those who can see it. 6 

The last sentence would seem to need a few explanatory words. 
Here Ibn ‘Arabi divides the ‘shameful things’, i.e., the self- 
manifestations of God, into two kinds. The first consists of those 
things that are openly manifest to our senses, in the world of 
concrete reality. The second refers to the ‘inner’ (ba(in) self- 
manifestations of the Divine Essence in the form of the permanent 
archetypes. These are not manifest to the eyes of ordinary people, 
and in this respect they are not ‘shameful’. And yet they are 
nonetheless manifested forms, and as such are clearly visible to 
those who have the proper eyes with which to perceive them. They 
are, to that extent, equally ‘shameful’. 7 

Thus God ‘has forbidden the shameful things’, that is, God has 
forbidden the reality to be known openly; namely, the fact that He is 
nothing other than the (created) things. So He has concealed the 
reality with the veil of ‘jealousy’ -‘other-ness’ (ghayrah ). 8 And (the 
‘other’) is yourself (i.e., your ego which is conscious of being some- 
thing independent and different from the Absolute). (This connec- 
tion between ‘jealousy’ and ‘other-ness’ is natural) because ghayrah 
comes from ghayr. 

As a result of this, the ‘other’ judges that this (particular act of) 
hearing, for instance, is the hearing of such-and-such an individual 
person, while the ‘knower’ of the truth judges that the hearing (i.e., 
all particular acts of hearing) is the very (act of) the Absolute. And 
the same is true of all human faculties and bodily organs. 

Thus not everyone knows the Absolute (in the same degree). There 
are superior men and inferior men, and a number of ranks are clearly 
discernible among them. 9 

The highest rank, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, belongs to a man who 
throws himself wholly into the act of ‘remembrance’ (dhikr) - that 
is, not only with his tongue and heart alone - and becomes internally 
unified with the Absolute. 

It must be kept in mind that ‘remembrance’ (dhikr), for Ibn 
‘Arabi, does not simply mean the act of remembering God with 
one’s tongue and heart; the word is rather synonymous with mysti- 
cal ‘self-annihilation’ in God. The dhikr in this meaning is a spiritual 
state in which a mystic concentrates all his bodily and spiritual 
powers on God in such a way that his whole existence is united with 


The Perfect Man as an Individual 

God completely, without any residue. When a mystic attains to this 
state, the distinction between the subject (who exercises the con- 
centration of the mind) and the object (upon which his mind is 
concentrated) naturally disappears, and he experiences the immed- 
iate tasting’ of the essential unity with the Absolute. The ordinary 
kind of dhikr which consists in merely ‘remembering’ the 
Absolute with tongue or mind without a total existential involve- 
ment of the person represents a lower degree of dhikr-ex perience. 

When a dhikr of the highest rank actually occurs in a mystic, the 
natural perfection of Man is completely realized, and he occupies a 
position in the world higher than that of other creatures, including 
even angels. Of course all creatures manifest the glory of God each 
according to its degree of dhikr, but it is only in Man that this 
experience can be heightened to that of the essential unity with God. 

The real value of the human existence which is ours is known only to 
those who ‘remember’ Godin the proper way of ‘remembering’. For 
God is the intimate Companion ( jalis ) of those who ‘remember’ Him, 
and those who ‘remember’ Him do witness the Companion. As long 
as a man who ‘remembers’ does not witness God who is his Compan- 
ion, he is not ‘remembering’ (in the proper way). 

The ‘remembrance’ of God (when it is real) runs through all the parts 
of a man, unlike the case in which a man ‘remembers’ only with his 
tongue. For in the latter case, God happens to be only momentarily 
the Companion of the tongue exclusively, so that the tongue alone 
sees God while the man himself does not see Him by means of the 
sight by which he is properly supposed to see. 

You must understand (in the light of this explanation) the following 
mystery concerning the ‘remembrance’ of those who are not serious 
enough. Even in a man who is not serious enough, the (particular 
bodily organ) which happens to be ‘remembering’ Him is doubtless in 
the presence of God, and the object of ‘remembrance’ (i.e., God) is 
its Companion and it does witness Him. But the man himself, as long 
as he lacks seriousness, is not exercising ‘remembrance’ (as he 
should), and consequently God is not his Companion (in the real 

All this comes from the fact that man is ‘many’ (i.e., composed of 
many parts); he is not one single (non-composite) reality. The Abso- 
lute, on the contrary, is One in its essential reality although it is Many 
in its Divine Names. But man is ‘many’ with his parts, so that, even if 
one of his parts is engaged in ‘remembrance’, it does not necessarily 
follow that other parts, too, are ‘remembering’. The Absolute hap- 
pens to be the Companion of that particular part of his which is 
actually engaged in ‘remembrance’, but his other parts are being 
negligent of ‘remembrance’. 10 

Such being the case, it is naturally to be expected that there should 
arise many degrees among men regarding the capacity for knowing 
God and the mystery of Being. On the basis of this fact Ibn ‘Arabi 



Sufism and Taoism 

classifies men in several different ways, each classification having its 
peculiar standard. I have already introduced some of them. Here I 
shall give three typical classifications. 

The first classification divides men into two categories: (1) those 
whose minds have an otherworldly structure and (2) those whose 
minds are of a worldly structure. The first category is represented by 
a man who, pure of mind and heart, free from all bodily desires, can 
see through things and grasp immediately the realities underlying 
them. A man like this knows God by ‘unveiling’ and ‘immediate 
tasting’, not by Reason. Of course, he, too, exercises his Reason 
within its proper domain, but never pushes it beyond its natural 
limits. Rather, he readily goes beyond the realm of Reason, and 
follows the judgments given by mystical intuition. Such a man is a 
‘knower’ (‘arif) and a ‘servant of the Lord’ (‘ abd rabb ). 

The second category, on the contrary, is represented by a man 
whose mind is deeply involved in bodily attachments, who is com- 
pletely under the sway of desires, and who, consequently, cannot 
see the reality of things. In trying to know God, such a man depends 
exclusively upon Reason. He cannot step over the boundaries of 
logical thinking. Even such a man may taste, on rare occasions, 
something of the experience of ‘unveiling’ . In such cases, his Reason 
recognizes the fact that he is experiencing something unusual. But 
this he knows only by Reason. So as soon as the experience ends, he 
falls into confusion, and ends up by submitting himself to the 
judgment of Reason. Such a man is not a ‘servant of the Lord’ ; he is 
rather a ‘servant of reasoning’ (‘abd naiar). 

It must be noticed that Ibn ‘ Arabi does not simply disparage and 
deprecate Reason. It has its own field in which to work prop- 
erly. But it has its limitations. A real ‘knower’ is one who assigns to 
Reason a proper place and restrains it from overstepping its 
domain. The prophets and apostles are not people devoid of 
Reason. On the contrary, they are pre-eminently men of Reason. 
But they have a wider field at their command which lies beyond the 
reach of Reason. 

In fact, no one is more reasonable than the apostles. But (in addition 
to Reason) they are (endowed with another capacity by which) they 
bring informations directly from God. 

Thus the apostles admit the authority of Reason (within its proper 
domain), but add to it something which Reason cannot grasp by its 
own power, and which Reason rejects it at first; it is only in the Divine 
self-manifestation (i.e., during the time in which the mind happens to 
be actually experiencing it by ‘unveiling’) that it admits that it is true. 
However, as soon as the experience of the Divine self-manifestation 
leaves the mind, the latter falls into confusion concerning what it has 

The Perfect Man as an Individual 

just seen. If the man in such a case happens to be a ‘servant of the 
Lord’, he immediately subjugates his Reason to Him, but if the man 
happens to be a ‘servant of reasoning’, he subjugates the truth to the 
judgment of Reason. 

This state or affairs, however, occurs only as long as the man remains 
in the worldly dimension of existence, being veiled from the other 
worldly dimensions (which is realized) in the very midst of the 
present world. 

Even the ‘knowers’ of the truth look in this world as if they were in a 
form peculiar to the present world because of the earthly properties 
appearing in them. In their ‘interior’, however, they have already 
been transported by God to the state of being which is peculiar to the 
Hereafter. There can be no doubt about it. So they are not recogniz- 
able outwardly except to those whose spiritual eyes have been 
opened by God to see through things. In reality, every true ‘knower’ 
of God, (who knows God) through the experience of (His direct) 
self-manifestation in himself, is actually living in a mode of being 
peculiar to the Hereafter. Such a man has, already in the present 
world, been resurrected from the dead and brought to life from his 
tomb. So he sees what others cannot see and witnesses what others 
cannot witness. This is a result of a special favor which God grants to 
some of His servants." 

The second classification which Ibn ‘Arab! proposes consists in 
dividing men into three type: (1) ‘knower’ (‘arif), (2) ‘non-knower’ 
(ghayr ‘arif) and (3) ‘ignorant’ ( jahil ). 

He defines 12 the first type as ‘a man who sees the Absolute from 
the Absolute, in the Absolute, and by the Absolute itself’. The 
second, the ‘non-knower’, is ‘a man who sees the Absolute from the 
Absolute, in the Absolute, and by his own self’ . The ‘ignorant’ is ‘a 
man who sees the Absolute neither from the Absolute nor in the 
Absolute, and who expects to see the Absolute (in the Hereafter) by 
his own self’. 

The ‘knower’ is a man who completely identifies himself with 
God in very possible respect and sees God with God’s own eyes 
from the very viewpoint of God. Since he sees God with God’s eyes, 
all the self-manifestations of God are within his sight. He actually 
witnesses the whole world of Being as it pulsates with Divine Life. 

As to the ‘non-knower’, though he sees the Absolute in the 
Absolute and from the viewpoint of the Absolute, the eye with 
which he sees is his own. So the reality cannot but be deformed by 
his sight. 

The ‘ignorant’ is by no means in a position to see the Absolute as 
it really is. His mind is naturally restricted in an extreme degree. 
Each ‘ignorant’ adores and worships God only in a form peculiar tc 
a particular religion which he happens to hold, and denies all othe 
forms of worshipping God. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Generally speaking each man (i.e., of the class of the ‘ignorant’) 
necessarily sticks to a particular religion (‘ aqidah , i.e., religion as a 
system of dogmas) concerning his Lord. He always goes back to his 
Lord through his particular religious belief and seeks God therein. 
Such a man positively recognizes God only when He manifests Him- 
self to him in the form recognized by his traditional religion. But 
when He manifests Himself in other religions, he flatly refuses to 
accept Him and runs away from Him. In so doing, he simply behaves 
in an improper way towards God, while imagining that he is practis- 
ing good manners toward Him. Thus a man who sticks to the belief of 
his particular religion believes in a god according to what he has 
subjectively posited in his mind. God in all particular religions 
(i'tiqadat) is dependent upon the subjective act of positing ( ja‘l ) on 
the part of the believers. Thus a man of this kind sees (in the form of 
God) only his own self and what he has posited in his mind. 13 

The last paragraph of the passage just quoted discloses in a daring 
and outspoken way Ibn ‘ Arabi’ s fundamental position regarding the 
eternal Religion and various historical religions. As we have 
observed in an earlier context, 14 it is his unshakeable conviction that 
all religions are ultimately one because every religion worships the 
Absolute in a very particular and limited way. Whatever one wor- 
ships as God, one is worshipping through that particular form the 
Absolute itself, nothing else, because there is nothing in the whole 
world but particular self-manifestations of the Absolute. 

In this connection, Ibn ‘Arabi draws our attention to a famous 
Tradition that depicts one of the occurrences of the day or Resur- 
rection. It reads: ‘On the day of Resurrection, God will appear to 
the creatures in a strange form and say, “I am your Lord, the 
Highest”. The people will say, “No, we take refuge with God from 
thee!” Then He will make Himself manifest in a form familiar to 
them in their religions. Thereupon the people will cry out, “Glory 
be to Thee, o God” ’. Ibn ‘Arab! observes that this is not only a 
matter of the day of Resurrection, for exactly the same thing is 
actually happening in the present world. ‘Behold how the degrees of 
men concerning their knowledge of God correspond exactly to their 
degrees concerning the seeing of God on the day of Resurrection’ . 
And he closes the passage by giving us the following warning and 

Beware of being bound up by a particular religion and rejecting all 
others as unbelief! If you do that, you will fail to obtain a great 
benefit. Nay, you will fail to obtain the true knowledge of the reality. 

Try to make yourself a (kind of) Prime Matter for all forms of 
religious belief. God is wider and greater than to be confined to one 
particular religion to the exclusion of others. For He says: ‘To 
whichever direction you turn, there surely is the Face of God’ (II, 
115). God does not specify (in this verse) a particular place in which 


The Perfect Man as an Individual 


the Face of God is to be found. He only said: ‘ There is the Face of 

The ‘face’ of a thing means its real essence. So God has admonished 
by this verse the hearts of the ‘knowers’ so that they might not be 
distracted by non-essential matters in the present world from being 
constantly conscious of this kind of thing. For no human being ever 
knows at which moment he will die. If a man happens to die at a 
moment when he is forgetful of this, his position will certainly be not 
equal to another who dies in the state of clear awareness. 15 

The third classification of men which Ibn ‘Arab! proposes is also a 
tripartite division. According to this classification, the lowest degree 
is represented by a man who relies upon Reason and who, there- 
fore, is content with understanding both God and the world by 
exercising his thinking power. The middle position is occupied by 
men of ‘imagination’ ( khayal), \.Q ., those who understand the Abso- 
lute according to the authentic imagery based on visions of 
prophets. And the highest degree is of those who know the reality of 
the things through the experience of ‘unveiling’ and ‘immediate 

Let us begin with the lowest class, that is, men of Reason. These 
people blindly believe in Reason, do not recognize anything as truth 
unless it is acceptable to Reason, and refuse to admit anything 
which happens to be in conflict with Reason. They do not know that 
Reason, in matters concerning the Absolute, is utterly powerless, 
and that it can never go deep into the reality of Being. In various 
passages of the Fu$u$, Ibn ‘ Arabi emphasizes the narrow limitations 
and the essential powerlessness of Reason in contrast to the ‘unveil- 
ing’ ( kashf) which is for him the highest form of human cognition. 
He sees in the Theologians (mutakallimun) a typical example of the 
men of Reason. 

As an illustration, he adduces a Qoranic verse: ‘thou (Muham- 
mad) wert not the one who threw when thou threwest, but God it 
was who really threw’ 16 (VIII, 17). This verse, according to Ibn 
‘Arabi, is a most concise symbolic description of the essential rela- 
tion between the Absolute and the world. The verse begins by 
negating that Muhammad ‘threw’ . Then it affirms that he did throw 
-‘when thou threwest’ - and finally Muhammad’s having thrown is 
again negated, and the verse ends by establishing that the real 
thrower was God Himself. All this is reducible to the proposition: 
‘the real thrower is God, but it is God in the phenomenal form of 
Muhammad’. The verse, thus understood, expresses nothing other 
than the truth about the self-manifestation of the Absolute. 

However, only a real ‘knower’ is capable of interpreting the verse 
in this sense. As for the Theologians, its true meaning is completely 
out of their reach. In confusion they interpret it arbitrarily 


256 Sufism and Taoism 

according to the dictates of their Reason. As a result, their conclu- 
sion clashes with that of 'immediate tasting’ . And in most cases they 
go to the extreme of declaring impossible and absurd what mystical 
intuition recognizes as true. 

This and similar verses can be rightly understood only by those 
who are possessed of an infinitely flexible mind. On the basis of this 
single verse one can say, ‘it was Muhammad who threw’ , just as one 
can say, ‘it was not Muhammad who threw’. Likewise, one can say, 
‘it was God who threw’ , just as one can say, ‘it was Muhammad who 
threw, not God’. The verse, in this way, is liable to produce various 
statements that seemingly contradict each other. For, after all, the 
question is one of different relations and viewpoints. One and the 
same event can be looked at variously according to various possible 
viewpoints. And yet all this variation takes place within the 
infinitely wide Reality which comprises everything and every poss- 
ible viewpoint. All are ultimately the activity of the Absolute. But 
Reason which by nature is one-sided, rigid, and inflexible, cannot 
accept such a view. 

As another good example aptly illustrating the natural and essen- 
tial deficiency of Reason, Ibn ‘Arabi considers the problem of the 
relation between ‘cause’ and ‘caused’. The Theologians and 
Philosophers, who try to understand everything in the light of what 
Reason tells them, often discuss the concept of ‘cause’ (‘ illah ). The 
reality of ‘cause’, however, can never be revealed to their minds as 
long as they remain so utterly dependent upon logical thinking. 

As an illustration disclosing the natural weakness of Reason in its 
reasoning activity we may mention the judgment given by Reason 
concerning ‘cause’: that a ‘cause’ cannot be the ‘caused’ of that of 
which it is the ‘cause’. This is evidently what Reason judges. But in 
the light of knowledge obtained by mystical illumination, we must 
assert precisely this proposition (which is rejected by Reason); 
namely, that a ‘cause’ does become the ‘caused’ of that of which it is 
the ‘cause ’. 17 

The judgment given by Reason can be made (more) correct through 
theoretical elaboration within the boundaries of logical thinking. 
But, even so, the ultimate limit to which Reason can go, when it is 
actually faced with a state of affairs which contradicts the evidence 
furnished by logical proof, is to think that - admitting the essential 
unity of Reality through all the multifarious forms of things in the 
world - (this unique Reality), in so far as it actually and positively acts 
as a ‘cause’ in the form of some concrete thing (A, for example) and 
causes some other concrete thing ( B ), it can never be the ‘caused’ of 
that very thing ( B ) which it (A) has caused as long as it is the ‘cause’. 
The truth of the matter, Reason will think, is rather that, as the 
Reality changes its form (from A to C, for example, and enters into a 
different relationship with B ), its capacity may also change in such a 

The Perfect Man as an Individual 


way that it (now in the form of C) could very well be the ‘caused’ of 
what ( B ) it has caused (in the capacity of A), so that, as a result, the 
‘caused’ may become the ‘cause’ of its own ‘cause’. This, I say, is the 
furthest limit to which Reason can go even when it perceives the 
reality (of Being, by perceiving one single Essence underlying all the 
things and events that stand in ‘cause’ - ‘caused’ relations), and steps 
beyond the proper domain of logical reasoning . 18 

The latter half of this passage may be explicated as follows. Properly 
speaking, Reason has a very narrowly limited domain of its own. As 
long as it remains within the strict limits of this domain, Reason 
cannot even see that everything is but a different self-manifestation 
of one single Reality, the Absolute. But if Reason does stretch itself 
forcibly to the furthest possible limit and goes beyond the domain of 
its natural capacity, it will be able to see that the Many in the 
possible world are ultimately so many different forms of one and the 
same Reality. Of course, such a cognition itself goes against the 
judgment of Reason in its normal activity. But at least this much 
may be conceded by it if it succeeds in extending its capacity in the 
way just described. 

Reason, once it has admitted that the Many, i.e., all things and 
events in the world of concrete reality, are ultimately One and are 
but so many phenomenal forms assumed by one single Reality, must 
necessarily admit also that the distinction usually made between 
‘cause’ and ‘caused’ is merely a relative matter, because both are 
two different forms assumed by one and the same thing. And in this 
particular sense, Reason will have to admit that a ‘cause’ can be a 

However, even at this stage, Reason is limited by its own logic. It 
will still assert that so long as a certain concrete thing (A) actually is 
the ‘cause’ of another concrete thing ( B),A remains a ‘cause’, and 
will never be a ‘caused’ of B. A, in the capacity of B's ‘cause’, can 
never be a ‘caused’ of B. A can rightly be a ‘caused’ of B only when it 
is considered from a different angle in a different capacity, i.e., no 
longer exactly as A but rather as something different, C. 

Thus it is the final judgment of Reason, even at its unusually 
extended limit, that a ‘cause’, unless it be considered in terms of a 
different relationship, cannot be caused by its own ‘caused’. This is 
the self-evident and primary truth of reason which it can never 
abandon as long as Reason remains Reason. 

However, if we look at the matter in the light of the intuition 
gained by the experience of ‘immediate tasting’, we find immedi- 
ately that a ‘cause’ can possibly be a ‘caused’, just as a ‘caused’ can 
possibly be a ‘cause’. 

It is worthy of notice that the thought pattern that underlies this 
conception is very characteristic of Ibn ‘Arab!; we have already met 



Sufism and Taoism 

with it in the preceding in various forms. The idea, for example, that 
the creatures are ‘food’ of God, just as God is ‘food’ of the crea- 
tures, or the idea of the mutual taskhir between God and the 
creatures, namely, that the creatures make God ‘subservient’ to 
themselves, just as God makes the creatures ‘subservient’ to Him - 
these and similar ‘daring’ ideas are structurally of the same category 
as that of the mutual causal relationship between God and the 

How, then, can a ‘caused’ act positively upon its own ‘cause’ in 
such a way that it makes the latter its own ‘caused’ ? The answer runs 
as follows. ‘The ‘cause-ness’ (‘ illiyah ) of a ‘cause’ (‘illah ) is incon- 
ceivable without the ‘caused-ness’ ( ma‘luliyah ) of the ‘caused’ 
(ma‘lul), nor can the first actually exist without the latter. The 
‘cause-ness’ completely depends upon the ‘caused-ness’ of the 
‘caused’. ‘Cause’, in this sense, contains in itself ‘caused-ness’, just 
as ‘caused’ contains ‘cause-ness’. Moreover, all things, in Ibn 
‘ArabFs view, are but different phenomenal forms of one single 
Existence. So everything is in one aspect ‘cause’, and in another 

Representing the people of ‘immediate tasting’, al-Qashani for- 
mulates the right answer in the following terms : 19 

The one single Reality appearing in two different forms (i.e., ‘cause’ 
and ‘caused’) is apt to receive the two qualifications according to (our 
subjective) points of view. That is to say, it has, when it is in the state 
of being a ‘cause’, the aptitude to be a ‘caused’, and when it is in the 
state of being a ‘caused’, it has the aptitude to be a ‘cause’. For the 
one Reality comprehends in itself both ‘cause-ness’ and ‘caused- 
ness’ with all the properties peculiar to both. Thus one and the same 
thing is a ‘cause’ in its ‘cause-ness’ , and a ‘caused’ in its ‘caused-ness’ . 

It has in itself all these and similar aspects (which it manifests) 
according to particular circumstances. 

Exactly the same holds true of the phenomenon of the self- 
manifestation. For (such distinctions as) the ‘self-manifester’, the 
locus of self-manifestation, the act of self-manifestation, the being of 
the self-manifester a self-manifester and the being of the locus a 
locus, etc. ( - all these are simply [reflections of our] subjective 
viewpoints.) In reality they are nothing other than the Absolute 
which is essentially One and which appears in these various capacities 
according to our subjective perspectives. These are all notions con- 
ceived by our discriminating Reason, the distinctions existing only in 
our Reason. They are all matters of relative forms, supposed rela- 
tions secondarily derived from the one single Reality. This Reality is 
God, the One and the Unique. There is nothing in Being except God! 

If we have gone into a considerably long digression on the problem 
of the ‘cause’ - ‘caused’ relationship, it is partly because of its 
intrinsic value as a theory of causality typical of Ibn ‘Arab!. The 

The Perfect Man as an Individual 

main purpose, however, has been to give an illustration showing the 
natural incapability of Reason to reach any deep truth about the 
Absolute and the world of Being. 

‘He who knows himself (lit. ‘his soul’) knows his Lord’ - this 
famous Tradition is one of Ibn ‘ArabFs favorite adages. Here again 
he refers to it and declares that there has not been even a single 
person, among the Philosophers and Theologians, who has grasped 
his own ‘self’ (soul) in its real depth. 

Of all the men of knowledge no one has obtained a real insight into 
the ‘soul’ and its reality except the divinely inspired Apostles and 
great Sufis. As to the men of reasoning and logical thinking, whether 
the ancient Philosophers or the Theologians in Islam, not even one of 
them has hit upon the truth in their discussions on ‘soul’ and its 
quiddity. (This is but natural because) logical thinking can never 
arrive at the truth in this matter. Therefore, he who seeks the true 
knowledge of ‘soul’ by means of thinking is like a person who, 
looking at a man with a tumor, thinks him to be fat, or like a person 
who blows upon something which is not fuel. 

People of this kind are precisely ‘ those whose effort goes astray in the 
present world, being convinced that they are doing good work’ 
(XVIII, 14). For he who seeks anything by a wrong method is sure to 
fail in achieving his aim. 20 

Between the real ‘knowers’ and the men of Reason are situated the 
people of Imagination ( khayal ). These are men who try with sincer- 
ity to approach the Absolute by the aid of the images given by their 
Prophet and Apostle. Concerning the above-quoted Qoranic verse 
about the ‘one who threw’ , for example, the men of this kind believe 
firmly that the true ‘thrower’ is God Himself, although the deep 
meaning of the verse escapes their understanding. They readily 
accept as true whatever their Prophet teaches them, and do not dare 
to be critical of anything which they think contradicts Reason. Ibn 
‘Arabi calls these men ‘people of Belief (or Faith)’ ( ahl al-iman). 

The ‘people of Belief are those who accept unquestioningly what- 
ever the Prophets and Apostles convey from the Absolute. They 
should not be confused with those who accept unquestioningly the 
teaching of the (Philosophers and Theologians) who think by Reason 
and who are not content unless they interpret any message (i.e., 
Qoranic verse or prophetic Tradition) that is transmitted to them in 
the light of logical evidences. 

To these people (of Belief) refers the Qoranic expression: ‘or he who 
lends his ear’ (L, 37) to the Divine messages as they are conveyed 
through the tongues of the Prophets. And such a man, i.e., a man who 
lends his ear in this way, ‘is a witness’ (L, 37). God here refers to the 
ontological dimension of Imagination and the proper use of the 
faculty of Imagination. And this corresponds to the saying of the 
Prophet (Muhammad) on the ‘perfection of Belief’ 



Sufism and Taoism 

(ihsan):‘ 2i . . .that you worship God as if you saw Him’. God is always 
in the direction toward which man prays. This is why such a man is a 
witness. 22 

‘Being a witness {shahid)' in this passage means, in Ibn Arabi’s 
interpretation, the spiritual state in which a man ‘witnesses’, i.e., is 
present by his heart to the ontological plane of Imagination. It is a 
state at which the heart of a ‘knower’ perceives in sensible imagery 
some of the things that properly belong to the world of the Unseen. 
The heart of a ‘ knower’ , when he reaches this stage, finds itself in the 
world of Imagination and begins to witness in images various states 
of affairs of the invisible world. 

It is worthy of notice that toward the end of the passage just 
quoted, Ibn ‘Arabi, referring to the famous Tradition about ihsan, 
draws attention to the expression: ‘. . . that you worship Him as if 
you saw Him’. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s interpretation, this describes the 
lowest and weakest degree of the ‘witnessing’ here in question. It is 
the lowest degree of the mental presence in the ontological plane of 
Imagination, for it is said: ‘as if you saw Him’ . As the very wording 
of this phrase indicates, man is not as yet actually seeing God. There 
is as yet no actual vision. Man only acts as if he had a real vision. 

But when the heart of the ‘knower’ becomes strengthened and 
mounts a step higher, the object of the ‘witnessing’ becomes visible 
to the internal, spiritual eye (ba$irah), though as yet no vision occurs 
to his physical eye . 23 

As the ‘knower’ goes up to the next degree, the object becomes 
visible to both his physical eye and his spiritual eye. And if he still 
goes up and reaches finally the ultimate and highest stage, the one 
who ‘witnesses’ and the object ‘witnessed’ become completely 
unified. At this stage it is no longer the human heart that ‘witnesses’ 
its object; but it is the Absolute itself ‘witnessing’ itself in itself. And 
this is the stage of the ‘saint’ ( waliy ). 

Thus when a man ‘wakes up’, and rises to the highest degree of 
‘saintship’, he begins to witness an extraordinary phenomenon, for 
his spiritual eye is now open to the reality of what we have described 
earlier under the title of ‘new creation’. 

In the eye of a real ‘knower’, the Absolute (in whatever form it may 
appear) remains always the ‘recognized’ one which is never denied. 24 
The people who recognized the same Absolute under all phenomenal 
forms in the present world will do exactly the same in the Hereafter, 

This is why God (speaking of a man of this kind) says ‘for whomever 
has a heart ( qalb )’ (L, 37). For (such a man) knows the constant 
changing of the Absolute in various forms; he knows this judging by 

The Perfect Man as an Individual 

the fact that his ‘heart’ is constantly changing from one form to 
another. 25 

Thus such a man comes to know his own ‘self’ through (the know- 
ledge of the constant transformation of) himself. (And from this he 
obtains the real knowledge about the Absolute, for) his own ‘self’ is 
nothing other than the He-ness of the Absolute, (and his knowledge 
thus obtained is easily extended to everything because) everything in 
the world of Being, whether present or future, is nothing other than 
the He-ness of the Absolute; indeed, everything is the He-ness 
itself. 26 

A real ‘knower’ who knows his ‘heart’ {qalb) sees with his own inner 
eye how it changes constantly and transforms itself {qalb or taqal- 
lub) at every moment in a myriad of modes and states. He knows at 
the same time that his ‘heart’ is but a self-manifestion of the Abso- 
lute, and that it is nothing other than the He-ness of the Absolute. 
Of course his ‘ heart’ is the only thing in the whole world whose inner 
structure he can know through introspection. But he is well aware 
also that all other things must be exactly of the same structure as his 
‘heart’. Thus a man who knows his own ‘heart’ from inside knows 
also the Absolute as it goes on transforming itself moment after 
moment in all the possible forms of the world. 

The category to which such a ‘knower’ belongs constitutes the 
highest degree on the scale of humanity. The subject of the next 
chapter will be this highest category of men. 


1. Fuy., p. 26/56. 

2. Fuy., p. 118/114. The whole passage has been given in translation in Chapter IV. 

3. Fus., pp. 125-126/107. 

4. p. 126. 

5. Fus., p. 126/107. 

6. Fus., p. 130/109-110. 

7. Cf. Affifi, Fuy., Com., p. 126. 

8. As I have remarked above, the word ghayrah meaning ‘jealousy’ is, in the 
linguistic consciousness of Ibn ‘ Arabi, directly connected with ghayr meaning ‘ other’ . 
So the sentence: ‘God covered or concealed the reality with ghayrah' not only means 
that He concealed it with ‘jealousy’, but at the same time that He has concealed the 
reality by an infinite number of particular ‘determinations’ , all of which are regarded 
as ‘other’ than God Himself, so that in this view everything appears as something 


Sufism and Taoism 

‘other’ than the rest of the things as well as ‘other’ than the Absolute. And the view of 
‘other-ness’ covers the reality of Being and hinders it from being perceived by the 
eyes of ordinary people. 

9. Fus ., p. 130/110. 

10. Fus., p. 211/168-169. 

11. Fus., PP- 234-235/185-186. 

12. Fus., pp. 135-136/113. 

13. ibid. 

14. Cf. Chapter V, where the same idea is dealt with in connection with a different 
problem, that of ‘metaphysical perplexity’. 

15. Fus., P- 136/1 13. 

16. Wa-ma ramayta idh ramayta wa-lakinna Allaha rama. 

17. Suppose A is the ‘cause’ of B, for instance. B is of course the ‘caused’ of A. But 
there is also a certain respect in which B must be regarded as the ‘cause’ of A . In this 
latter respect, A would be the ‘caused’ of B. 

18. Fus., p. 233/185. 

19. p. 234. 

20. Fus ■, P- 153/125. 

21. On the exact meaning of the word ihsan see my The Concept of Belief in Islamic 
Theology, Tokyo, 1965, pp. 58-60. 

22. Fus., p. 149/123. 

23. Qashani, p. 150. 

24 The reference is to the Tradition, which has been quoted and explained earlier in 
the present chapter, concerning what will happen on the day of Resurrection. 

25. By the ‘etymological’ way of thinking which, as we have observed several times, 
is so typical of Ibn ‘Arab!, he brings together the ‘heart’ ( qalb ) and ‘change’ or 
‘transformation’ {qalb). 

26. Fus., P- 149/122. 

XVI Apostle, Prophet, and Saint 

The preceding chapter has revealed that the moment we begin to 
consider Man on the individual level, we are faced with the exist- 
ence of several degrees among men. We have seen also that the 
highest of all human degrees is ‘saintship’ ( walayah ). The Saint 
( waliy ) is the highest ‘knower’ of God, and consequently (in terms 
of the world-view of Ibn ‘ Arabi) of the essential structure of Being. 
Otherwise expressed, the Saint is the Perfect Man par excellence. 
The central topic of this chapter will be the concept of ‘saintship’ .* 

We may begin by remarking that, in Ibn ‘ Arabi’s understanding, the 
concept of Saint comprises both Prophet ( nabiy ) and Apostle 
( rasul ). Briefly stated, the Saint is the widest concept comprising 
Prophet and Apostle; next is the concept of Prophet which com- 
prises that of Apostle; and the Apostle is the narrowest of all. As 
al-Qashani says, ‘every Apostle is a Prophet, and every Prophet is a 
Saint’, but not vice versa. 

On the relation between the three concepts, there is a consider- 
ably long passage in the Fusus 2 in which Ibn ‘Arabi develops his 
thought. The argument is very entangled and somewhat confusing, 
but the gist of it may be clarified in the following way. 

The first point to note concerning the concept of Saint is that 
waliy is properly a Divine Name. The fact that waliy is one of the 
Names of God implies that it is an aspect of the Absolute. In this 
respect, the Saint is radically different from the Prophet and the 
Apostle because the words nabiy and rasul are not Divine Names; 
they are peculiar to human beings. ‘ Waliy is a Name of God’, as Ibn 
‘Arabi says, ‘but God has neither called Himself nabiy nor rasul, 
while He has named Himself waliy and has made it one of His own 
Names ’. 3 

Thus waliy is a Divine Name. But even a man, when his know- 
ledge of God attains to its highest point, becomes entitled to be 
called by the same name; he is a waliy. However, the human waliy 
himself, being so keenly conscious of his ‘servant-ness’ (‘ubud- 
iyah) does not like to make the name publicly his own . For he knows 


Apostle, Prophet, and Saint 


Sufism and Taoism 

that the word waliy properly belongs to God alone, and that when a 
human being becomes a waliy he is supposed to have transcended 
his position of ‘servant-ness’ and have put himself in the position of 
Lordship ( rububiyah ). But, whether he likes it or not, it does 
sometimes happen that a mystic transcends his position of 
‘servant-ness’. This occurs by a mystic being completely drowned in 
the Absolute and losing the consciousness of his own 
‘servant-ness’ . 4 

It is to be remarked that, since waliy is a name common to God 
and Man, the walayah never ceases to exist. As God exists everlast- 
ingly, the saintship will exist forever. As long as there remains in 
the world even a single man of the highest spiritual power who 
attains to the rank of ‘saintship’ - and, in fact, such a man will 
certainly exist in every age - the ‘saintship’ itself will be kept intact. 

In contrast to this, the prophethood and apostleship are histori- 
cally conditioned, and can, therefore, be intermittent or even disap- 
pear completely. 5 As a matter of fact, we know that the chain of 
prophethood has historically come to an end at Muhammad, the last 
of all authentic Prophets. After Muhammad, there does not exist 
any longer a Prophet, who is at the same time a Law-giver 
v musharri ). After Muhammad we have only what Ibn ‘Arabi calls 
general prophethood’ ( nubuwwah ‘ ammah ), i.e., prophethood 
without institution of Law, which is nothing other than ‘saintship’. 

Only this name (i.e., waliy ) remains forever among mankind, not 
only in the present world but also in the Hereafter. As for the names 
which are peculiar to Man to the exclusion of God (i.e., Prophet and 
Apostle), they cease to exist with the cessation of prophethood and 
apostleship. God, however, has shown special mercy upon his ser- 
vants and has allowed to subsist among them ‘general prophethood’ 
which is not accompanied by institution of Law . 6 

This passage makes it clear that, in the conception of Ibn ‘Arabi, 
institution of Law ( tashri ‘) constitutes one of the characteristics of 
the Prophet. From this particular point of view, he divides the 
Prophets into two kinds: (1) those who institute Law ( nabiy 
musharri ‘) and (2) those whose prophetic activity is done within a 
given Law ( nabiy musharra‘ la-hu). The first category is represented 
by men like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, each one of whom 
instituted a particular Law by a Divine Command. The second 
category is exemplified by those who, like the successive Prophets in 
Israel, live and fulfil their prophetic mission within the boundaries 
of a given Law instituted by Moses. 

Since, as we have seen, the Saint is the widest concept in terms of 
extension and is the most basic one at that, there can be no Prophet, 
no Apostle unless the ‘saintship’ is first established. The Prophet is a 

Saint who adds to his ‘saintship’ one more distinguishing mark; 
namely, a particular knowledge of things unknown and unseen. 
And the Apostle is a Saint who adds to his ‘saintship’ and ‘prophet- 
hood’ one more characteristic; namely being conscious of the mis- 
sion and capacity of conveying Divine messages to the people who 
follow him. 

From this we learn that the first requirement for a man to be a 
Perfect Man is to be in the rank of a waliy, and that walayah is the 
most fundamental and most general attribute of all types of Perfect 
Man. What, then, does walayah mean? 

Walayah implies, first and foremost, a perfect knowledge of the 
ultimate truth concerning the Absolute, the world, and the relation 
between the Absolute and the world. 7 A man who has attained to 
the rank of ‘saintship’ has a clear consciousness that he is a self- 
manifestation of the Absolute, and that, as such, he is essentially 
one with the Absolute, and, indeed, ultimately is the Absolute itself. 
He is also conscious of the fact that, on the analogy of the inner 
structure of himself, all the phenomenal Many are self- 
manifestations of the Absolute and are, in the sense, one with the 
Absolute. This precisely is the consciousness of the ultimate and 
essential ‘oneness of Being’ (wahdah al-wujud ). 

This consciousness of the ‘oneness of Being’ he obtains only by 
being ‘annihilated’ and completely immersed in the Absolute. 
Through the experience of ‘self-annihilation’ he transforms himself, 
so to speak, into the ‘inside’ of the Absolute, and from there sees the 
reality of all things by ‘immediate tasting’. The concept of ‘self- 
annihilation’ ( Jana ) in this sense plays an exceedingly important 
role in the theory of walayah. The ‘self-annihilation’ is, in fact, the 
first item in the essential attributes of the Saint. 

Ibn ‘Arabi distinguishes three stages in ‘self-annihilation’. 8 The 
first is the annihilation of the attributes. This stage is called by Ibn 
‘Arabi takhalluq. It means that the mystic has all his human attri- 
butes ‘annihilated’ and in their place ‘assumes as his own’ ( takhal- 
luq ) the Divine Attributes. It is, as Bali Efendi tersely describes it, 9 
‘annihilating his attributes in the Attributes of the Absolute’. The 
second stage is called tahaqquq. It means that the mystic has his 
essence ( dhat ) ‘annihilated’ and realizes ( tahaqquq ) in himself his 
being one with the Absolute. Bali Efendi 10 describes it as ‘annihilat- 
ing his essence in the Essence of the Absolute’ . The third and the 
last stage is called ta‘alluq. The wordta‘alluq, meaning literally ‘firm 
adherence’, indicates that the man in this state remains firmly 
attached to the essential property of walayah so that he is never 
separated from it no matter what he may do in the world of empiri- 
cal existence. The state of ta‘alluq corresponds to what is more 


Sufism and Taoism 

usually known as the state of ‘self-subsistence’ ( baqa ’) which comes 
after the state of fana’. In this spiritual state, the mystic regains his 
self which he has once annihilated, but he regains it not in himself 
but in the very midst of the Divine Essence. In his fully illumined 
consciousness, there is no longer any trace of his old personal ego. 
He is only conscious that after having lost his life he now subsists in 
the Divine Essence, and that, therefore, it is, in reality, not he who 
exists but the Absolute itself. Whatever he does, it is not he but God 
who does it. Bali Efendi describes it as ‘annihilating his actions in 
the actions of the Absolute ’. 11 

‘Saintship’ comes into existence only on the basis of the experi- 
ence of ‘self-annihilation’ here depicted. And wide indeed is the 
consciousness of the Saint who has passed through such an experi- 
ence. For he witnesses the astonishing scene of all things merging 
into the limitless ocean of Divine Life, and he is conscious that all 
this is actually taking place in himself. At the very height of this 
spiritual state, the consciousness of the Saint is identical with the 
Divine Consciousness which has not yet begun to become split into 
an infinity of ‘determinations’ ( ta‘ayynnat ). 12 Such a man is the 
highest ‘knower’. And such a man naturally falls into deep silence 
(sukut), li because the content of the deepest knowledge is ineffable. 

Such is the existential ground on which stands ‘saintship’. And on 
this basis stands ‘prophethood’ with an additional property, and on 
‘prophethood’ stands ‘apostleship’ with a further addition. The 
Prophet and the Apostle are closely tied to the present world; their 
functions concern the life in this world, for institution of Law always 
aims at regulating the worldly life with a view to letting people 
obtain the everlasting happiness in the next world. ‘Saintship’, on 
the contrary, has no such essential relation to the present world. 

Thus ‘prophethood’ and ‘apostleship’ can disappear from their 
subjects, but the quality or title of ‘saintship’ never leaves its sub- 
ject. Those from whom the titles of ‘prophethood’ and ‘apostleship’ 
disappear become immediately Saints without any qualifications. 
And since, in the Hereafter, there can be no institution of Law, 
everybody who is in the present world a Prophet or Apostle will 
continue to exist in the next world in the rank of ‘saintship ’. 14 

As we have just remarked, the Prophet is a Saint with the addition 
of a different qualification (i.e., the rank of ‘saintship’ plus the rank 
of ‘prophethood’), and the Apostle is a Prophet with the addition of 
a further qualification (i.e., the rank of ‘saintship’ plus the rank of 
‘prophethood’ plus the rank of ‘apostleship’). So the Prophet unites 
in one person two ranks, and the Apostle unites in himself three 
different ranks. There are thus three different ranks recognized: 
‘saintship’, ‘prophethood’ and ‘apostleship’. The question is natur- 

Apostle, Prophet, and Saint 


ally raised as to which of them is higher than which. With regard to 
this question, the most problematic point, according to Ibn ‘ Arab!, 
concerns the position of ‘saintship’. Against those sufis who regard 
‘saintship’ qua ‘saintship’ as higher than ‘prophethood’ and 
‘apostleship’, he emphatically states that it is only when these two or 
three ranks co-exist in one person that we can rightly regard his 
‘saintship’ as higher than his ‘prophethood’ and ‘apostleship’. 

(When one and the same person unites in him these two or three 
qualifications) the man in the capacity of a ‘knower’ or Saint is more 
complete and more perfect than himself in the capacity of an Apostle 
or in that of a man who has instituted a Divine Law (i.e., Prophet). 

So whenever you hear a man belonging to the ‘people of God’ saying 
- or whenever such a saying is conveyed to you through somebody 
else - that ‘saintship’ is higher than ‘prophethood’, you must under- 
stand him to mean what I have just remarked. 

Likewise, when such a man declares that the Saint stands above the 
Prophet and the Apostle, he is simply talking about one and the same 
person. In fact, the Apostle qua Saint is more complete (and perfect) 
than himself qua Prophet and Apostle. It is not the case, however, 
that a Saint (i.e., a different person who happens to be a Saint) who 
follows (another person who happens to be a Prophet or Apostle in 
the community) is higher than the Prophet or Apostle . 15 

The last sentence of this passage points out the fact that in case the 
three qualifications (Saint, Prophet, and Apostle) do not concern 
one and the same person but three different persons, there is a 
respect in which the Saint must necessarily follow and be subordi- 
nate to the Prophet or Apostle. And this because the Apostle 
possesses a knowledge of the particular Law (i.e., ‘exterior know- 
ledge’ l ilm zahir ) with which he has been sent to his community, 
while the Saint has no such knowledge. In what concerns the regula- 
tions of the Law, the latter must follow the Apostle of his age. 

But there is also a certain respect in which the Saint is superior to 
the Apostle. For the Saint not only possesses a complete knowledge 
about God and the reality of things (‘interior knowledge’, ‘ilm 
bafin ) but also is conscious of the fact that he has that knowledge. 
But neither the Apostle nor the Prophet is conscious of it, although 
they, too, do possess the same knowledge. 

From the fact that ‘apostleship’ is based on three different con- 
stituents there naturally follows that there are differences among 
the Apostles regarding their degrees. This is the conception of the 
‘difference in degrees among the Apostles’ ( tafadul al-rusul ). 

All Apostles, in terms of their ‘saintship’, are equal and stand on 
the same level, but in actuality they must necessarily differ one from 
the other because of their intimate relations with the concrete 


Sufism and Taoism 

situations of the age and country in which they live. And the same is 
true of the Prophet. The nature and rank of an Apostle is decisively 
affected by the conditions, material and spiritual, determining the 
situation of the nation of which he happens to be the Apostle. 
Likewise, the rank of a Prophet is gravely affected by the amount of 
knowledge he actually has. 

Know that the Apostles qua Apostles - not qua Saints or ‘knowers’ - 
stand in different degrees, each according to the state of his commun- 
ity. For the amount of his knowledge concerning his own apostolic 
mission is exactly measured to what his community needs, no more, 
no less. And since communities differ from each other in terms 
of relative superiority, the Apostles also are higher and lower in 
terms of the knowledge of their mission in exact accordance with the 
difference that exists among the nations. And to this refers the saying 
of God: ‘Those Apostles, We have made some of them superior to 
others’. (II, 253) 

Likewise, (the Prophets) differ in rank among themselves in accor- 
dance with their individual capacities with regard to their personal 
knowledges and judgments. ‘And to this refers the saying of God: 
And We have made some of the Prophets superior to others’ . (XVII, 
55) 16 

In the preceding chapter we have seen that the Perfect Man on the 
cosmic level is the ‘vicegerent’ of God. The same is true also of the 
Perfect Man on the individual level. Here on the level of individual 
persons, the idea of the Perfect Man is embodied by Saint, Prophet, 
and Apostle. These three are the ‘vicegerents’ ( khulafa ’) of God 
because they are the most perfect and most complete loci of 
theophany on the earth. 17 They are concrete manifestations of the 
‘Reality of Muhammad’ ( al-haqiqah al-muhammadiyah) which we 
have discussed in the previous chapter. 18 

The term khalifah meaning ‘vicegerent’ is a little ambiguous, 
because we ordinarily use it to designate the political head of the 
Muslim community, the Caliph. 19 In view of this fact, Ibn ‘Arab! 
strictly distinguishes between two kinds of khalifah : (1) the ‘vice- 
gerent of God’ ( khalifah Allah, or khalifah ‘ an Allah) and (2) the 
‘vicegerent (or successor) of the Apostle’ ( khalifah al-rasul, or 
khalifah ‘an al-rasul ). The ‘vicegerent’ in the sense of the Perfect 
Man (1) is totally different from the Caliph, the historical and 
political head of the Muslim community, who assumes the same 
name khalifah (2). 

God has His ‘vicegerents’ on the earth; they are the Apostles. As for 
the Caliphs we know today, they are (‘vicegerents’ or ‘successors’) of 
the Apostles, not of God, because a Caliph governs (the community) 
strictly according to the dictates of the Law of an apostolic origin, and 
never goes beyond it. 20 


Apostle, Prophet, and Saint 

There are, however, exceptional cases in which a Caliph, i.e., a 
‘vicegerent’ succeeding the Apostle, is in touch with the very source 
from which the latter has drawn his knowledge, and governs the 
community according to the inner Law which he receives direct 
from God. Such a man is outwardly a khalifah of the Apostle, but 
inwardly is a khalifah of God. 

Such a man is outwardly a follower ( muttabi ‘ , namely, of the Apostle) 
in the sense that he conforms himself (to the Law) in governing the 
community: Jesus, for example, when he will come down to the earth 
and govern the world. 21 Another example is the Prophet Muham- 
mad. And to this refers the saying of God: ‘These are the men whom 
God has given guidance. So follow their guidance’ (VI, 90). A man of 
this sort is, in virtue of the way in which he derives (his knowledge) 
and of which he is conscious, both ‘specially privileged’ ( mukhtass ) 
and ‘conforming’ ( muwafiq ). 22 In this respect he is somewhat in the 
same position as the Prophet (Muhammad) who, confirming as he did 
the Law of the Apostles who had preceded him, confirmed it in his 
own name, so that we, his followers, actually follow him (accepting 
the Law) as his own, and not as a Law established by some of his 
predecessors. In like manner, the ‘vicegerent of God’ obtains (his 
knowledge) from exactly the same source as the Apostle. 

Such a man is called, in mystic terminology, ‘the vicegerent of God’, 
but, in ordinary (non-mystic) terminology, ‘the vicegerent of the 
Apostle of God’. 

This is the reason why the Apostle of God (Muhammad) died with- 
out explicitly designating anyone as his khalifah. He acted in this way 
because he knew that among the believers there would appear some- 
one who would receive ‘vicegerency’ directly from his Lord and 
thereby become a ‘vicegerent of God’, while conforming himself 
perfectly to the given Law (established by the Apostle). 

One of the key-terms of Ibn ‘ Arabi’s theory of walayah is the ‘Seal’ 
( khatam ), meaning the ultimate and final unit of a series. I should 
like to close this chapter by a brief consideration of this concept, 
although the problems it raises mostly go far beyond the scope of 
the present book which aims at elucidating the ontological structure of 
Ibn ‘Arabi’s world-view. 

The term khatam appears in two phrases: (1) the Seal of the 
Prophets ( khatam al-anbiya ’) or Seal of the Apostles ( khatam al- 
rusut), and (2) the Seal of the Saints {khatam al-awliya’). In conformity 
with the commonly-accepted usage in Islam, the first phrase ‘Seal of 
the Prophets’ designates the Prophet Muhammad himself. The phrase 
in itself has nothing original about it; it is an expression often used in 
accordance with the common belief in Islam that the Prophet 
Muhammad represents historically the last ring of a long chain of 
Prophets, there being absolutely no possibility of an authentic Prophet 
appearing after him. 


Sufism and Taoism 

By the second phrase: ‘the seal of the Saints’ , which is naturally more 
problematic, Ibn ‘ ArabI means most probably himself, at least as long 
as the present world lasts, 23 although he does not say so explicitly in the 
Fusus. As Affifi points out, 24 Ibn ‘ArabI, besides hinting at the idea in 
many places of his writings by ambiguous expressions as, for example, 
‘the Seal of the Muhammadan saintship ( walayah muhammadiyah ) is a 
man of noble Arab birth, living in our own time’ etc., declares in one 
passage of the Futuhat al-Makkiyyah : ‘ I am the Seal of the saintship, no 
doubt, (the Seal of) the heritage of the Hashimite (Muhammad) and 
the Messiah’. 

But whether or not Ibn ‘Arab! really means by the Seal himself, 
the problem is merely of a peripheral significance to us. For the 
specific purposes of the present work, what is important is the 
concept of Seal itself. 

The problem turns round the ultimate source of the highest know- 
ledge peculiar to the class of the highest ‘knowers’. 

This (highest) knowledge properly belongs only to the Seal of the 
Apostles and the Seal of the Saints. No one of the Prophets and 
Apostles obtains this knowledge except from the sacred niche of the 
Last Apostle , 25 and no one of the Saints obtains it except from the 
niche of the Last Saint . 26 

The last sentence might suggest the wrong idea that Ibn ‘ArabI is 
speaking here of two different ‘niches’. In truth, however, there is 
only one ultimate ‘niche’ from which all obtain the highest know- 
ledge. For, as al-Qashani says, 27 if all the Apostles obtain it from the 
Seal of the Apostles, the latter obtains it from his own innermost 
‘niche’ , in the very capacity of the Seal of the Saints, 28 so that all the 
Apostles and the Saints ultimately obtain their Light from the Seal 
of the Saints. 

As to the relative superiority between the Seal of the Apostles 
and the Seal of the Saints, Ibn ‘ArabI gives his view as follows: 29 

It is true that the Seal of the Saints follows externally what the Seal of 
the Apostles has established, namely, the Sacred Law. This, how- 
ever, does not minimize in any way the spiritual rank of the Seal of 
the Saints. Nor does this contradict what I have said above (concern- 
ing all Apostles obtaining their esoteric knowledge from the ‘niche’ 
of the Seal of the Saints). For (it simply means that) the Seal of the 
Saints is in a certain respect lower in rank (than the Seal of the 
Apostles) but is higher in another respect. 

This interpretation is confirmed by what actually took place in our 
religion, namely, by the fact, (for instance) that ‘Umar proved to be 
superior (to Muhammad) in his decision about the right treatment of 
the prisoners of Badr and also regarding the fertilization of the 
date-palm. A ‘perfect’ man need not be superior to others in every 


Apostle , Prophet, and Saint 

matter and in every respect. What the (spiritual persons) consider 
important is superiority in terms of knowledge about God. That only 
is the central point. As for worldly affairs, they are of no importance 
at all in the minds (of spiritual persons). 

In connection with the problem of the relation between the Seal 
of the Saints and the Seal of the Apostles, Ibn ‘ArabI refers to a 
famous Tradition in which Muhammad compares himself to the one 
last brick that finishes and completes an entire wall. Then he corre- 
lates this Tradition with a vision he had at Mecca in the year 599 

In this vision Ibn ‘Arab! saw the Ka‘bah, the House of God. The 
Ka‘bah was built of gold and silver brick (‘silver brick’ being a 
symbol of the Prophet, and ‘gold brick’ of the Saint). The wall of the 
Ka‘ bah as he saw it still lacked two final pieces of brick , one gold and 
another silver. Ibn ‘ArabI, in the dream, keenly felt that the two 
missing bricks were no other than himself. And the construction of 
the Ka‘bah was brought to completion when he filled the place of 
these two bricks. 

The Prophet (Muhammad) once compared the ‘prophethood’ to a 
wall made of brick which was complete except in one place which was 
to be filled by a piece of brick. Muhammad himself was that brick. 
The important point is that he saw, as he says (in this Tradition), only 
one single piece of brick still missing. 

As for the Seal of the Saints, he would surely have visions of a similar 
nature; he would surely see what the Prophet symbolized by a wall. 
(The only difference would, however, be that) he would see in the 
wall two bricks still missing, the entire wall being built of gold and 
silver bricks. And he would notice that the two bricks that were 
lacking in the wall were one gold and the other silver. Further, he 
would surely see in the vision himself just fit to be put into the place of 
these two bricks. Thus he would see that what was meant by the two 
bricks completing the wall was no other than the Seal of the Saints. 
The reason why he must necessarily see himself as two bricks is as 
follows. He is, externally, a follower of the Law established by the 
Seal of the Apostles. This fact was (symbolized in the vision by) the 
place for the silver brick. But this is only the ‘external’ side of the Seal 
of the Saints, concerning as it does only the legal regulations about 
which he simply follows the Seal of the Apostles. But, on the other 
hand, in his innermost heart, he obtains directly from God that very 
thing in which externally he is a simple follower (of the Seal of the 

All this because he sees the state of affairs as it really is. So he cannot 
but see the matter in this way. And in this capacity he corresponds, 
internally, to the place for the gold brick, for he obtains his know- 
ledge from the same source from which the angel (Gabriel) obtains 
that which he conveys to the Apostle. 


Sufism and Taoism 

If you have understood what I have here indicated metaphorically 
you have obtained an extremely valuable knowledge about everything. 
Thus every Prophet, (in the long historical chain of ‘prophethood’) 
beginning with Adam and ending with the last Prophet, invariably 
obtained his (prophetic Light) from the ‘niche’ of the Seal of the 
Prophets, although the corporeal existence of the latter was posterior 
to others. This because Muhammad, in his Reality , 30 was existent 
(from eternity). To this refer his words (in a Tradition): ‘I was a 
Prophet even while Adam was still between water and clay ’. 31 

On the implication of this passage al-Qashani makes an interesting 
remark . 32 Ibn ‘Arabi’s description might be taken to imply the 
superiority of the Seal of the Saints to the Prophet Muhammad, 
because the position of the latter is symbolized only by one brick, 
whereas that of the Seal of the Saints is symbolized by two bricks, 
one of silver as the sign of his ‘external’ subordination to Muham- 
mad, and the other of brilliant gold as the sign of his own Light. 
Against this understanding al-Qashani warns the reader and points 
out that, according to the Tradition in question, the Ka‘bah had 
lacked one single piece of brick, and that when Muhammad filled 
the place the building was completed. This means, he says, that 
Muhammad was de facto the Seal of the Saints. Except that 
Muhammad himself appeared only as a Prophet- Apostle, and did 
what he did only in that capacity, not in the capacity of a Saint. He 
did not, in other words, manifest the form of walayah. 

The vision which Ibn ‘Arabi saw in Mecca was formed in the 
world of Imagination on the basis of this historical fact. Muhammad 
was de facto the Seal of the Saints, but since he did not manifest 
himself as such, there still remained the necessity for another person 
to appear as a historical phenomenon in the capacity of the Seal of 
the Saints. Otherwise expressed, the ‘saintships’, with Muhammad, 
remained to the last ‘interior’ . This ‘interior’ , i.e., hidden, ‘saintship’ 
has come to light only with the appearance of the Seal of the Saints. 

Regarding the difference between the Seal of the Saints and the 
rest of the Saints, Ibn ‘Arabi remarks that in the former the ‘saint- 
ship’ is something essential while in the latter it is something that 
must be ‘acquired’ first. And this is the reason why (according to 
al-Qashani ) 33 the ‘saintship’ of the former is called ‘solar saintship’ 
{walayah shamsiyah) while that of the latter is called ‘lunar saint- 
ship’ {walayah qamariyah). 


1. In this book I use provisionally the words ‘saint’ and ‘saintship’ as the English 
equivalents of waliy and walayah respectively. Whether the meaning of the Arabic 
word waliy is covered by the English word ‘saint’ is another question. 


Apostle, Prophet, and Saint 

2. Fu$., pp. 160-169/135-136. 

3. Fuy., p. 168/135. See for example the Qoran (II, 257) where we read: ‘God is the 
waliy (close, protecting Friend) of those who believe’. 

4. Fu$., p. 167/135. 

5. Cf. also Fus., p. 34/62. 

6. Fus., p. 167/135. 

7. The concrete content of such a knowledge is precisely what we have analytically 
discussed throughout the preceding pages. 

8. Fus., pp. 168-169/136. 

9. p. 168. 

10. ibid. 

11. p. 169. 

12. Fus., p. 89/88. 

13. Fus., p. 34/62. 

14. Fus., p. 169/136. 

15. Fu$., p. 168/135-136. 

16. Fus., p. 162/132. 

17. Fus., p.259/207. 

18. Cf. Chapter XIV, (IV). 

19. The English word Caliph is itself nothing but an Anglicized form of khalifah. 

20. Fus., p. 204/162-163. 

21. The reference is to the eschatological figure of Jesus. According to the Muslim 
belief, Jesus will descend from Heaven once again at the end of the present world, 
and will govern the world by the Sacred Law of Islam. In that state, Jesus will be 
formally a ‘vicegerent’ of Muhammad, while deriving his knowledge from the same 
source from which Muhammad received his Law. Jesus will be, in that state, the Seal 
of the Saints. 

22. ‘Specially privileged’, because he is conscious of the fact that he has received 
directly from God an inner Law by which he governs the community, but ‘conform- 
ing’, at the same time, because outwardly he owes his Law to his predecessors. 

23. I say ‘at least as long as the present world lasts’ because, as we saw above (cf. 
note 21), at the very end of the present world, in the eschatological situation, Jesus 
will come down to the earth and assume the function of the Seal of the Saints. This 
latter is called the ‘general saintship’ ( walayah ‘ammah) as distinguished from the 


Sufism and Taoism 

‘ Muhammadan saintship’ ( walayah muhammadiyah). Regarding this distinction, see 
the relevant passages quoted from the Futuhat by Dr Osman Yahya in his edition of 
al-Tirmidhi: Khatm al-Awliya, Beyrouth, 1965, p. 161, Footnote 53. 

24. Philosophy, pp. 100-101. 

25. ‘Niche’ ( miskhat ) symbolizes the Divine Light in the deepest core of the saintly 
heart; the Divine Light is nothing other than the ‘Reality of Muhammad’. 

26. Fus., p. 34/62. 

27. p. 34. 

28. We have observed above that by the ‘Seal of the Saints’ Ibn ‘Arabi means 
himself. But here al-Qashani seems to be saying that the Seal of the Apostles, i.e., 
Muhammad, was also the Seal of the Saints. This, however, is not a contradiction. As 
we noticed before in discussing the ‘Reality of Muhammad’, in the consciousness of 
Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘Muhammad’ is not only a historical individual person but a cosmic 
principle of creation, and the two aspects seem to be constantly present in his mind 
when he speaks about ‘Muhammad’. 

29. Fus., pp. 34-35/62-63. 

30. Reference to the above-mentioned ‘Reality of Muhammad’. 

31. Fuy., p. 35/63. 

32. p. 36. 

33. ibid. 

XVI I The Magical Power of the Perfect 

Ibn ‘Arabi recognizes in the Perfect Man a particular kind of magi- 
cal power. This is hardly to be wondered at, because the Perfect 
Man, as a ‘knower’ (‘arif), is by definition a man with an unusually 
developed spiritual power. His mind naturally shows an extraordi- 
nary activity. 

This extraordinary power is known as himmah, meaning a con- 
centrated spiritual energy. According to Ibn ‘Arabi, a ‘knower’ can, 
if he likes, affect any object by merely concentrating all his spiritual 
energy upon it; he can even bring into existence a thing which is not 
actually existent. In brief, a ‘knower’ is able to subjugate anything to 
his will. He is endowed with the power of taskhir . 1 

The word taskhir reminds us of King Solomon. It is widely known 
and accepted in Islam that Solomon was in possession of a super- 
natural power by which he could dominate Nature and move it at 
will. He could, for instance, cause winds to blow in whatever direc- 
tion he wished. He is said to have been able to control at will 
invisible beings. 

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, however, Solomon did not exercise his 
control over Nature by his himmah. In this respect, Solomon 
occupies a very special place. It was a special favor of God granted 
to him in a peculiar way. For, in order to work miracles, he did not 
have to have recourse to the particular concentration of mind 
known as himmah . He had only to ‘ command’ ( amr ) . Whatever was 
commanded by him to do anything, moved immediately as it was 
commanded. This kind of taskhir is, in the judgment of Ibn ‘Arabi, a 
degree higher than the taskhir by himmah , because the former is a 
direct working upon the object. 

The taskhir which was peculiar to Solomon, which made him superior 
to others, and which God had given him as (an essential) part of the 
kingship never to be given to anybody after him - this taskhir was 
characterized by its being exercised by his ‘command’. God says: 
‘Thus have We subjugated to him (i.e., Solomon) the wind so that it 
might blow by his command (XXI, 81) (That which is really 


Sufism and Taoism 

characteristic of Solomon’s case) is not the simple fact that he could 
exercise taskhlr. For God says concerning all of us without any 
discrimination: ‘And We have subjugated to you all that are in 
heaven and in earth' (XXXI, 20). Thus He speaks of having put 
under our control winds, stars, and others. But (in our case) the 
taskhir occurs not by our command, but by the Command of God. So 
you will find by reflection that what was peculiar to Solomon was (not 
the taskhlr itself) but in fact that (the taskhlr) could be exercised by 
his own command. In order to do that, he did not need any mental 
concentration or himmah', all he had to do was to ‘command’. 

I mention this point specifically because we all know that the things of 
the world can be affected and influenced by a particular kind 
of mental force when the latter happens to be in a heightened state of 
concentration. I have witnessed this phenomenon in my own (mysti- 
cal) life. Solomon, however, had only to pronounce the word of 
command to anything he wanted to control, without there being any 
need for himmah and concentration. 2 

What kind of thing, then, is this spiritual concentration called him- 
mahl It may be most easily understood if we try to conceive it on the 
analogy of our ordinary experience of imagination. We can produce 
in imagination anything we like, even things that are not existent in 
the outside world. Such an imagined object exists only within our 
minds. In a somewhat similar way, a true ‘knower’ who has attained 
to the stage of walayah is able to produce by his concentrated 
spiritual power things that are not actually there, with this differ- 
ence, however, that he produces the object in the outer world of 
reality. This is obviously a kind of ‘creation’ ( khalq ). But it should 
not be identified or confused with the Divine act of creation. 

Anybody can create within his mind by means of his faculty of 
imagination things that have no existence except in imagination 
itself. This is a matter of common experience. But the ‘knower’ 
creates by himmah things that do have existence outside the place of 
the himmah (i.e., outside the mind). 

(However, the object thus created by himmah continues to exist) 
only as long as the himmah maintains it without being weakened by 
the keeping of what it has created. As soon as the concentration 
slackens and the mind of the ‘knower’ becomes distracted from the 
keeping of what it has created, the object created disappears. This, 
however, does not apply to those special cases in which a ‘knower’ 
has obtained a firm control over all the Presences (ontological levels 
of Being) so that his mind never loses sight of them all at the same 
time. In fact, the mind of such a man (even if it loses sight of the 
Presences, does not lose sight of all together); there surely remains at 
least one Presence present to his mind. 3 

We must recall at this juncture the five Presences of Being to which 
reference was made in the first chapter. The Presences are classified 
variously. One of the classifications, to give an example of 


The Magical Power of the Perfect Man 

classification which is a little different from the one explained in the 
first chapter, makes the whole world of Being consist of (1) the 
Presence of the senses (i.e., the plane of the sensible experience), 
(2) the Presence of Images-Exemplars, (3) the Presence of the 
Spirits (arwah), (4) the Presence of the Intellects (‘uqul), and the 
Presence of the Essence. But the way in which the Presences are 
classified is not very important in the present context. What is of 
primary importance is to know that the world of Being is structured 
in terms of levels or planes and that these planes are related to each 
other in an organic way. This means that anything that exists in the 
plane of sensible experience, for instance, has a corresponding 
existence also in the higher planes in a particular form peculiar to 
each plane, so that ultimately it goes back to the very Essence of the 
Absolute as its ontological ground. 

Because of this particular structure of Being, the ‘knower’ can, by 
concentrating his entire spiritual energy upon an object on one of 
the suprasensible levels, produce the object in a sensible form on 
the level of concrete reality. Also by maintaining spiritually the 
form of an object on a higher level he can maintain the forms of the 
same object on the lower levels of Being. 

But this spiritual ‘creation’ is essentially different from the Divine 
Creation in one vital point. When, for example, the ‘knower’ has 
produced by himmah an object in a sensible form, the object thus 
‘created’ on the level of sensible experience continues to subsist on 
that level only during the time in which he continues to maintain his 
spiritual concentration. The moment his attention becomes less 
keen by the effect of drowsiness or by a different idea occurring to 
his mind, the object ceases to exist on the level of the senses. 
However, Ibn ‘Arabi adds, in the case of the highest ‘knower’, his 
spiritual power dominating all the basic five planes of Being, there is 
always at least one level on which the spiritual concentration is 
maintained even if his attention becomes less keen and less intense 
on other levels. In such a case, the object ‘created’ may be preserved 
for a long period of time. 

By saying this, I have disclosed a secret which the people of God (i.e., 
mystics) have always jealously guarded themselves from revealing 
for fear that something might come to light which would contradict 
their claim to the effect that they are the Absolute. (Against this 
claim I have disclosed the fact that) the Absolute never becomes 
forgetful of anything, while man must necessarily be always forgetful 
of this particular thing or that. 

Only as long as a man spiritually maintains what he has ‘ created’ , is he 
in a position to say, ‘I am the Creator!’ ( ana al-haqq). However, his 
maintaining the ‘created’ object is entirely different from God s 
maintaining. I have just explained the difference. 


Sufism and Taoism 

As long as he becomes forgetful of even one form and its ontological 
level, man is to be distinguished from the Absolute. He is naturally to 
be distinguished from the Absolute even if he maintains all the forms 
(of an object on different levels) by maintaining one of the forms on 
its proper level of which he happens to be unforgetful, because this is 
after all a kind of ‘implicit’ ( tadammun ) maintaining. God's maintain- 
ing what He has created is not like this; He maintains every form 
‘explicitly’ (i.e., He maintains all forms of the thing, each on its 
proper level individually). 

This is a question which no one, as far as I know, has even written in 
any book, neither myself nor others. This is the only and the first 
book in which (the secret has been disclosed). The present work is in 
this sense a unique pearl of the age. Keep this well in mind! 

The particular level of Being 4 to which the mind of the ‘knower’ is 
kept present, being concentrated on the form (of an object which he 
has created on that ontological level) , may be compared to the ‘ Book’ 
of which God says: ‘We have not neglected anything in the Book (of 
Decrees)’ (VI, 38), so that it comprehends both what has been 
actualized and what has not yet been actualized. But what I say here 
will never be understood except by those who are themselves the 
‘gathering’ principle ( qur’an ). 5 

Thus it has been clarified that a man who can gather his himmah in 
such a comprehensive way is able to do so because he ‘gathers’ 
together in his consciousness all the levels of Being into a com- 
prehensive unity. Such a man stands closest to God, with the only 
difference which has just been explained. The difference, in short, 
results from the furqan. And precisely because of the furqan he is 
essentially distinguished from God. 

The important point, however, is that this ‘separating’ is not an 
ordinary furqan. It is the highest furqan (ar fa furqan) 1 because it is 
a furqan after the ‘gathering’. In the case of an ordinary man, the 
‘separating’ which he exercises is a pr e-fana phenomenon; he has 
not yet had any experience of ‘self-annihilation’, that is, he has not 
yet ‘tasted’ his essential oneness with the Absolute. The ‘separating’ 
he exercises in such a state is an absolute, unconditional ‘separa- 
tion’. He is absolutely and unconditionally ‘separated’ and distin- 
guished’ from the Absolute. 

The ‘knower’, on the contrary, is a man who has already passed 
through the experience of ‘self-annihilation’ and, consequently, 
knows through personal experience his essential oneness with the 
Absolute. He knows it, and yet distinguishes in himself between the 
‘Divine aspect’ ( lahut ) and the ‘human aspect’ (nasut), i.e., between 
the Absolute and the creature. This ‘separating’ is not a mere 
‘separating’; it is a ‘separating’ of a higher order. And this corres- 
ponds to what is generally known in Sufi terminology as ‘self- 
subsistence’ ( baqa ’). 


The Magical Power of the Perfect Man 

Now, if we consider in the light of this conception the idea of 
himmah, we are led to the following understanding of it. The highest 
‘knower’, while he is actually exercising his himmah, is in a certain 
sense a ‘creator’ ( khaliq ); all the traces of his ‘servant-ness’ disap- 
pear from his consciousness, and he feels ‘Lordship’ living and 
acting in himself. He feels himself to be a ‘Lord’, and has the clear 
consciousness that everything in the whole world is under his con- 
trol. This is the stage of ‘gathering’ (qur’an). However, this state is 
but a temporary and unstable one, because if his mind slackens and 
loses its highest intensity of concentration even for a moment, he 
becomes immediately conscious of his ‘impotence’ (‘ajz) and is 
necessarily faced with his own ‘servantness’ . And this is the stage of 
‘separating’ (furqan)} 

We must observe also that himmah is, in its practical aspect, a free 
disposal of things (taskhir al-ashya’), while in its cognitive aspect it 
is an extraordinary power to penetrate the secret of Being which lies 
beyond the grasp of Reason. It is significant in this respect that Ibn 
‘Arabi in a passage of the Fusus 9 declares that the true reality 
(haqiqah) of Being can only be known by a ‘servant endowed with 
himmah' . Himmah consists essentially in that a ‘knower’ concen- 
trates all his spiritual powers upon one single point and projects his 
concentrated heart (qalb) toward a certain definite direction. This 
act works in two different, but closely related, ways: (1) producing 
something or some state of affairs in a place where such a thing or 
state of affairs does not sensibly exist, and (2) tearing apart the veil 
of Reason and bringing to light the reality lying behind it. 

The supernatural power of himmah being as described, the next 
question that naturally arises is: Does the ‘knower’, i.e., the Perfect 
Man, work ‘miracles’ (karamat) as he likes? 

According to the usual theory among Sufis, a ‘knower’ who has 
reached the stage of ‘saintship’ is in a position to perform ‘things 
that go against the customs’ (khawariq-al-‘adat), i.e., ‘miracles’. 
Such a man is usually represented as a kind of superman who, 
projecting his spiritual power to anything and anybody, affects and 
changes the object at will. 

Ibn ‘Arabi does not accept this view. In the Qoran, he argues, 10 
we find the Divine words: ‘God is He who creates you of weakness’ 
(XXX, 54). The very root of man’s creation is ‘weakness’ (da‘f). 
Man is essentially and naturally ‘weak’ (da‘if) and ‘powerless’ 
(‘ajiz). He begins with the weakness of the infant and ends with the 
weakness of the old man. Of course, as the Qoran verse itself 
admits, 11 the child, as he grows into a man, acquires ‘strength’ 
(quwwah) and becomes conscious of his own strength. But this, 
after all, is a transitory state. Soon he grows old and falls into 


Sufism and Taoism 

decrepitude. Besides, the ‘strength’ which he obtains in the inter- 
mediary stage is but an ‘accidental strength’ ( quwwah ‘aradiyah). 
Moreover, this accidental strength is not something which he pro- 
duces in himself, but is a result of God’s ‘putting’. In reality, he 
shows strength only because he happens to be at that stage a locus of 
theophany in which God manifests Himself under the Name 
‘Powerful’ (i qawiy ). 

What is by essence strong is the Absolute alone; man is strong 
only by accident. Ordinary men do not know this. Only the true 
‘knower’ knows that the strength (including himmah) which he feels 
in himself is not his own but God’s. 

And since he is conscious of this, the ‘knower’ knows also that it is 
not right for him to try to exercise at will the power of himmah . Thus 
he confides its exercise to the real owner of that power, and puts 
himself in the original state of the ‘absolute powerlessness’ (‘ ajz 

Someone may say: ‘What prevents (the highest ‘knower’) from exer- 
cising his himmah that has a positive power to affect things? Since 
such a power does exist even in those mystics who merely follow the 
Apostles, the Apostles must be more appropriate to possess it’ . 

To this I will answer: ‘You are certainly right. But you do not know 
another important point. A true “knowledge” does not allow him- 
mah to be freely exercised. And the higher the knowledge, the less 
possibility there is for a free exercise of himmah' . 

And this for two reasons. One is that such a man fully realizes his 
state of ‘servant-ness’ and that he is always conscious of the original 
ground of his own creation (which is the above-mentioned ‘weak- 
ness’). The other is the oneness of the subject who exercises himmah 
and the object upon which it is exercised (for both are essentially and 
ultimately the Absolute, nothing else), so that he does not know upon 
whom to project his himmah. This prevents him from exercising 
himmah .' 2 

Then Ibn ‘Arab! says 13 that another reason for which the ‘knower’ 
refrains from working ‘miracles’ in the world is the knowledge 
about the absolute determining power of the permanent 
archetypes, which we have discussed in detail in an earlier chapter. 

Suppose there is in the presence of the ‘knower’ a man who 
disobeys the commands of the Apostle and thereby disobeys God. 
Why does the ‘knower’ not exercise his himmah upon this man so 
that he might be brought back to the right road? It is because 
everything, every event in the world is in accordance with what has 
been eternally determined in the form of an archetype or 
archetypes. The ‘knower’ knows that this ontological determination 
can never be changed. In the eyes of a man who has penetrated into 
the depth of the structure of Being, everything follows the track 


The Magical Power of the Perfect Man 

fixed by the very nature of Being, and nothing can deviate from it. In 
the light of this knowledge, even a man disobedient to God is 
walking along the God-determined way. And it is not in the power 
of an Apostle to bring such a man back to the ‘right road’, because 
the man is already on the ‘right road’. 

A certain Sufi of the highest rank once said to Master ‘Abd al- 
Razzaq: Go and ask Master Abu Madyan, after salutations, ‘O Abu 
Madyan, why is it that nothing is impossible to us, while everything is 
impossible to you? And yet here we are, aspiring to your spiritual 
stage, while you do not care for our spiritual stage. Why ?’ 14 
In fact, the situation was exactly like that (i.e., Abu Madyan really 
showed signs of ‘powerlessness’) in spite of the fact that Abu Madyan 
had, beside this state (i.e. the state of ‘powerlessness’), the other state 
(i.e., that of free disposal of things by means of himmah). 

We (i.e., Ibn ‘ Arabi himself) are even more complete as regards the 
state of ‘weakness’ and ‘powerlessness’. But (even though Abu 
Madyan did not show so much of ‘weakness’ as we do) the afore- 
mentioned Sufi of the highest rank said to him what he said. (How 
much more should we be worthy of such a remark, if the same Sufi 
were to criticize us.) In any event, however, Abu Madyan’ s case 
clearly exemplifies that kind of thing (i.e., the showing of ‘weakness’ 
because of a deep knowledge of the truth ). 15 

Ibn ‘Arabi goes on to argue that even this state of ‘weakness’ or 
refraining from exercising himmah should not properly be taken as 
a willful act on the part of the ‘knower’. The true ‘knower’ puts 
himself entirely in the hands of God; if He commands him to 
exercise his himmah he does, if He forbids him to do so he refrains 
from it, and if God Himself gives him a choice between the two he 
chooses refraining from the exercise of himmah. 

Abu al-Su‘ud (Ibn al-Shibl) once said to his followers: Verily God 
gave me the power of the free disposal of things fifteen years ago. But 
I have refrained from exercising that power for the sake of courtesy 
(tazarrufan) toward God. 

This saying implies too much bold familiarity (toward God). I myself 
do not refrain from exercising himmah for the sake of courtesy, 
because such an attitude would imply a willful choice on my part. No. 

I refrain from it because of the perfection of knowledge. The true 
knowledge of the matter does not require refraining from the exer- 
cise of himmah by way of willful choice. Whenever a ‘knower’ does 
exercise his himmah in this world, he does so in obedience to a Divine 
Command; that is to say, he does so because he is constrained to do 
so, not by way of willful choice . 16 

The position of an Apostle regarding this problem of ‘refraining’ is 
somewhat more delicate than that of a Saint . 17 Properly speaking 
the function itself of ‘apostleship’ requires his exercising himmah in 


Sufism and Taoism 

order that his being an Apostle be made clear to the people. For 
only when he is accepted as such by the community, is he able to 
spread the true religion of God. The Saint per se has nothing to do 
with such a mission. 

And yet, even the Apostle (Muhammad) did not try to show 
prophetic ‘miracles’ ( mufizat ). For one thing, he refrained from 
exercising his himmah because of his compassion for the people. He 
did not go to extremes in manifesting the conclusive evidence of his 
‘apostleship’ because it would have brought destruction to them. He 
spared them by not showing them too strong evidences of his 
‘apostleship’. Besides this, Muhammad had another reason shared 
by all true Saints for refraining from working miracles; namely, his 
knowledge that a ‘miracle’ can never change the eternally fixed 
course of events. Whether a man becomes a Muslim or not is 
determined by his archetype; it is not something which can easily be 
changed by the Apostle accomplishing before his eyes a ‘miracle’. 

Thus even the most perfect of all Apostles (akmal al-rusul), 
Muhammad, did not exercise himmah. There was actually a practi- 
cal need for showing ‘miracles’, and he was unquestionably 
endowed with such a power. And yet he did not exercise his spiritual 
power in that way. For, being the highest ‘knower’, he knew better 
than anybody else that ‘miracles’ were, in truth, ineffective. 

The most ideal state of the Perfect Man is a spiritual tranquility and 
quietude of an unfathomable depth. He is a quiet man content with 
a passivity in which he confides himself and every thing else to God’s 
disposal. The Perfect Man is a man who, having in himself a tre- 
mendous spiritual power and being adorned with the highest know- 
ledge of Being, gives the impression of a deep calm ocean. He is 
such because he is the most perfect image, in a concrete individual 
form, of the cosmic Perfect Man who comprehends and actualizes 
all the Names and Attributes of the Absolute. 


1. Taskhir literally means ‘forcing somebody to compulsory service, controlling 
something at will’. In discussing the problem of the ‘compulsory’ force of the 
permanent archetypes we have already come across the word taskhir in the form of a 
‘mutual taskhir between the Absolute and the world. 

2. Fuj., p. 199/158. 

3. Fu$., p. 90/88-89. 

4. Again Ibn ‘Arab! goes back to the case in which the ‘knower’ maintains spiritually 
all the forms of an object on all the levels of Being by actually concentrating on one of 
the levels. 

The Magical Power of the Perfect Man 
5. Fu$„ p. 91/89-90. 


6. On the difference between ‘gathering’ ( qur’an ) and ‘separating’ ( furqan ) see 
above, Chapter II. 

7. Fwj., p. 91/90. 

8. Cf. Fuj., p. 92/90. 

9. Fu$„ p. 148/121. 

10. Fu^., p. 156/127. 

1 1 . The verse reads: ‘ God is He who creates you of weakness , then puts ( ja'ala ) after 
weakness strength ( quwwah ), then again puts weakness after strength.’ 

12. Fu$., p. 157/127-128. 

13. Fuj., pp. 157-158/128. 

14. It means: We can freely accomplish ‘miracles’, but you apparently cannot. And 
yet we want to attain to your spiritual stage, while you do not show any sign of being 
desirous of attaining to our spiritual stage. 

15. Fus„ p. 158/129. 

16. Fus ., p. 159/129-130. 

17. ibid. 




I Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu 

The book called Tao Te Ching is now world-famous, and is being 
widely read in the West in various translations as one of the most 
important basic texts of Oriental Wisdom. It is generally - or 
popularly, we should say - thought to be a philosophico-mystical 
treatise written by an ancient Chinese sage called Lao-tzu, a senior 
contemporary of Confucius. In more scholarly circles no one today 
takes such a view. 

In fact, since the Ch’ing Dynasty when the question of the author- 
ship of the book was first raised in China , 1 it has been discussed by so 
many people, it has provoked such an animated controversy not 
only in China but in Japan, and even in the West, and so divergent 
are the hypotheses which have been put forward, that we are left in 
utter darkness as to whether the Tao Te Ching is a work of an 
individual thinker, or even whether a man called Lao-tzu ever 
existed in reality. We are no longer in a position to assign a proper 
chronological place to the book with full confidence. 

For our particular purposes, the problem of authorship and the 
authenticity of the work is merely of peripheral importance. 
Whether or not there once existed as a historical person a sage 
called Lao-tzu in the state of Ch’u, who lived more than one 
hundred and sixty years , 2 whether or not this sage really wrote the 
Tao Te Ching - these and similar questions, whether answered 
affirmatively or negatively, do not affect at all the main contention 
of the present work. What is of fundamental importance is the fact 
that the thought is there, and that it has a very peculiar inner 
structure which, if analyzed and understood in a proper way, will 
provide an exceedingly interesting Chinese counterpart to the 
‘Unity of Existence’ ( wahdah al-wujud) type of philosophy as rep- 
resented by Ibn ‘Arab! in Islam. 

Lao-tzu is a legendary, or at the very most, semi-legendary figure, of 
whom it is an obvious understatement to say that nothing certain is 
known to us. For, even on the assumption that there is an historical 
core in his so-called biography, we must admit that the popular 


Sufism and Taoism 

imagination has woven round it such a fantastic tapestry of imposs- 
ible events and unbelievable incidents that no one can ever hope to 
disentangle the intricate web of legends, myths and facts. 

Even the most sober and most dependable of all Chinese his- 
torians in ancient times, and the earliest to attempt a description of 
Lao-tzu’s life and adventures in his Book of History, 3 Ssu Ma Ch’ien 
of the Han Dynasty (the beginning of the 1st century B.C.), had to 
be content with giving a very inconsistent and unsystematic narra- 
tive made up of a number of stories stemming from heterogeneous 

According to one of those legends, Lao-tzu was a native of the 
state of Ch’u. 4 He was an official of the royal Treasury of Chou, 
when Confucius came to visit him. After the interview, Confucius is 
related to have made the following remark to his disciples about 
Lao-tzu. ‘Birds fly, fishes swim, and animals run - this much I know 
for certain. Moreover, the runner can be snared, the swimmer can 
be hooked, and the flyer can be shot down by the arrow. But what 
can we do with a dragon? We cannot even see how he mounts on 
winds and clouds and rises to heaven. That Lao-tzu whom I met 
to-day may probably be compared only to a dragon!’ 

The story makes Lao-tzu a senior contemporary of Confucius 
(551-479 B.C.). This would naturally mean that Lao-tzu was a man 
who lived in the 6th century B.C., which cannot possibly be a 
historical fact. 

Many arguments have been brought forward against the histori- 
city of the narrative which we have just quoted. One of them is of 
particular importance to us; it is concerned with examining this and 
similar narratives philologically and in terms of the historical 
development of philosophical thinking in ancient China. I shall give 
here a typical example of this kind of philological argument. 

Sokichi Tsuda in his well-known work, The Thought of the Taoist 
School and its Development , 5 subjects to a careful philological 
examination the peculiar usage of some of the key technical terms in 
the Tao Te Ching, and arrives at the conclusion that the book must 
be a product of a period after Mencius (372-289 B.C.). This would 
imply of course that Lao-tzu - supposing that he did exist as a 
historical person - was a man who came after Mencius. 

Tsuda chooses as the yardstick of his judgment the expression 
jen-i which is found in Chap. XVIII of the Tao Te Ching, 6 and which 
is a compound of two words jen and i. These two words, jen 
(‘humaneness’ with particular emphasis on ‘benevolence’) and i 
(‘righteousness’), properly speaking, do not belong to the vocabul- 
ary of Lao-tzu; they are key-terms of Confucianism. As represent- 
ing two of the most basic human virtues, they play an exceedingly 
important role in the ethical thought of Confucius himself. But in 


Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu 

the mouth of Confucius, they remain two independent words; they 
are not compounded into a semantic unit in the form of jen-i 
corresponding almost to a single complex concept. The latter 
phenomenon is observed only in post-Confucian times. 

Tsuda points out that the thinker who first emphasized the con- 
cept of jen-i is Mencius. This fact, together with the fact that in the 
above-mentioned passage Lao-tzu uses the terms jen and i in this 
compound form, would seem to suggest that the Tao Te Ching , is a 
product of a period in which the Confucian key-term jen-i has 
already been firmly established, for the passage in question is most 
evidently intended to be a conscious criticism of Confucian ethics. 
Lao-tzu, in other words, could use the expression with such an 
intention only because he had before his eyes Mencius and his 
ethical theory. 

Moreover, Tsuda goes on to remark, Mencius vehemently attacks 
and denounces everything incompatible with Confucianism, but 
nowhere does he show any conscious endeavour to criticize Lao-tzu 
or Tao Te Ching in spite of the fact that the teaching of the latter is 
diametrically opposed to his own doctrine; he does not even men- 
tion the name Lao-Tzu. This is irrefutable evidence for the thesis 
that the Tao Te Ching belongs to a period posterior to Mencius. 
Since, on the other hand, its doctrines are explicitly criticized by 
Hsiin-tzu (c. 315-236 B.C.), it cannot be posterior to the latter. 
Thus, in conclusion, Tsuda assigns to the Tao Te Ching a period 
between Mencius and Hsiin-tzu. 

Although there are some problematic points in Tsuda’ s argu- 
ment, he is, I think, on the whole right. In fact, there are a number of 
passages in the Tao Te Ching which cannot be properly understood 
unless we place them against the background of a Confucian 
philosophy standing already on a very firm basis. And this, indeed, 
is the crux of the whole problem, at least for those to whom the 
thought itself of Lao-tzu is the major concern. The very famous 
opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, for instance, in which the real 
Way and the real Name are mentioned in sharp contrast to an 
ordinary ‘way’ and ordinary ‘names’, 7 do not yield their true mean- 
ing except when we realize that what is meant by this ordinary ‘way’ 
is nothing but the proper ethical way of living as understood and 
taught by the school of Confucius, and that what is referred to by 
these ordinary ‘names’ are but the Confucian ‘names’, i.e., the 
highest ethical categories stabilized by means of definite ‘names’, 
i.e., key-terms. 

The Tao Te Ching contains, furthermore, a number of words and 
phrases that are - seemingly at least - derived from various other 
sources, like Mo-tzu, Yang Chu, Shang Yang, and even Chuang- 
tzu, Shen Tao, and others. And there are some scholars who, basing 


Sufism and Taoism 

themselves on this observation, go farther than Tsuda and assert 
that the Tao Te Ching belongs to a period after Chuang-tzu and 
Shen Tao. Yang Jung Kuo, a contemporary scholar of Peking, to 
give one example, takes such a position in his History of Thought in 
Ancient China. 6 

Some of these alleged ‘references’ to thinkers who have tradi- 
tionally been considered later than Lao-tzu may very well be 
explained as due to the influence exercised by the Tao Te Ching 
itself upon those thinkers who, in writing their books, may have 
‘borrowed’ ideas and expressions from this book. Besides, we have 
to remember that the text of this book as we have it to-day has 
evidently passed through a repeated process of editing, re-editing, 
and re-arranging in the Han Dynasty. Many of the ‘references’ may 
simply be later additions and interpolations. 

Be this as it may, it has to be admitted that the Tao Te Ching is a 
controversial work. And at least it is definitely certain that the 
formation of its thought presupposes the existence of the Confucian 
school of thought. 

Turning now to another aspect of Lao-tzu, which is more important 
for the purposes of the present work than chronology, we may begin 
by observing that the Biography of Lao-tzu as given by Ssu Ma 
Ch’ien in his Book of History makes Lao-tzu a man of Ch’u . 9 Thus 
he writes in one passage, ‘Lao-tzu was a native of the village Ch’ii 
Jen, in Li Hsiang, in the province of K’u, in the state of Ch’u’. In 
another passage he states that according to a different tradition, 
there was a man called Lao Lai Tzu in the time of Confucius; that he 
was a man of Ch’u, and produced fifteen books in which he talked 
about the Way. Ssu Ma Ch’ien adds that this man may have been the 
same as Lao-tzu. 

All this may very well be a mere legend. And yet it is, in my view, 
highly significant that the ‘legend’ connects the author of the Tao Te 
Ching with the state of Ch’u. This connection of Lao-tzu with the 
southern state of Ch’u cannot be a mere coincidence. For there is 
something of the spirit of Ch’u running through the entire book. By 
the ‘spirit of Ch’u’ I mean what may properly be called the shamanic 
tendency of the mind or shamanic mode of thinking. Ch’u was a 
large state lying on the southern periphery of the civilized Middle 
Kingdom, a land of wild marches, rivers, forests and mountains, rich 
in terms of nature but poor in terms of culture, inhabited by many 
people of a non-Chinese origin with variegated, strange customs. 
There all kinds of superstitious beliefs in supernatural beings and 
spirits were rampant, and shamanic practices thrived. 

But this apparently primitive and ‘uncivilized’ atmosphere could 
provide an ideal fostering ground for an extraordinary visionary 


Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu 

power of poetic imagination, as amply attested by the elegies writ- 
ten by the greatest shaman-poet the state of Ch’u has ever pro- 
duced, Ch’ii Yuan . 10 The same atmosphere could also produce a 
very peculiar kind of metaphysical thinking. This is very probable 
because the shamanic experience of reality is of such a nature that it 
can be refined and elaborated into a high level of metaphysical 
experience. In any case, the metaphysical depth of Lao-tzu’s 
thought can, I believe, be accounted for to a great extent by relating 
it to the shamanic mentality of the ancient Chinese which can be 
traced back to the oldest historic times and even beyond, and which 
has flourished particularly in the southern part of China throughout 
the long history of Chinese culture. 

In this respect Henri Maspero 11 is, I think, basically right when he 
takes exception to the traditional view that Taoism abruptly started 
in the beginning of the fourth century B.C. as a mystical metaphys- 
ics with Lao-tzu, was very much developed philosophically by 
Chuang-tzu toward the end of that century and vulgarized to a 
considerable degree by Lieh-tzu and thenceforward went on the 
way of corruption and degeneration until in the Later Han Dynasty 
it was completely transformed into a jumble of superstition, anim- 
ism, magic and sorcery. Against such a view, Maspero takes the 
position that Taoism was a ‘personal’ religion - as contrasted with 
the agricultural communal type of State religion which has nothing 
to do with personal salvation - going back to immemorial antiquity. 
The school of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, he maintains, was a particu- 
lar branch or section within this wide religious movement, a particu- 
lar branch characterized by a marked mystical-philosophical ten- 

These observations would seem to lead us back once again to the 
problem of the authorship of Tao Te Ching and the historicity of 
Lao-tzu. Is it at all imaginable that such a metaphysical refinement 
of crude mysticism should have been achieved as a result of a 
process of natural development, without active participation of 
an individual thinker endowed with an unusual philosophical 
genius? I do not think so. Primitive shamanism in ancient China 
would have remained in its original crudity as a phenomenon of 
popular religion characterized by ecstatic orgy and frantic ‘posses- 
sion’ , if it were not for a tremendous work of elaboration done in the 
course of its history by men of unusual genius. Thus, in order to 
produce the Elegies of Ch’u the primitive shamanic vision of the 
world had to pass through the mind of a Ch’u Yuan. Likewise, the 
same shamanic world-vision could be elevated into the profound 
metaphysics of the Way only by an individual philosophical genius. 

When we read the Tao Te Ching with the preceding observation 


Sufism and Taoism 

in mind, we cannot but feel the breath, so to speak, of an extraordi- 
nary man pervading the whole volume, the spirit of an unusual 
philosopher pulsating throughout the book. With all the possible 
later additions and interpolations, which I readily admit, I cannot 
agree with the view that the Tao Te Ching is a work of compilation 
consisting of fragments of thought taken from various heterogene- 
ous sources. For there is a certain fundamental unity which strikes 
us everywhere in the book. And the unity is a personal one. In fact, 
the Tao Te Ching as a whole is a unique piece of work distinctly 
colored by the personality of one unusual man, a shaman- 
philosopher. Does he not give us a self-portrait in part XX of the 

The multitude of men are blithe and cheerful as though they were 
invited to a luxurious banquet, or as though they were going up a high 
tower to enjoy the spring scenery. 

I alone remain silent and still, showing no sign of activity. Like a 
new-born baby I am, that has not yet learnt to smile. Forlorn and 
aimless I look, as if I had no place to return. 

All men have more than enough. I alone seem to be vacant and blank. 
Mine indeed is the mind of a stupid man! Dull and confused it is! The 
vulgar people are all clever and bright, I alone am dark and obtuse. 
The vulgar people are all quick and alert, I alone am blunt and tardy. 
Like a deep ocean that undulates constantly I am, like a wind that 
blows never to rest. 

All others have some work to do, while I alone remain impractical / 
and boorish. I alone am different from all others because I value 
being fed by the Mother . 12 

Similarly in another passage (LXVII), he says of himself: 

Everybody under Heaven says that I 13 am big, but look stupid. Yea, I 
look stupid because I am big. If I were clever I would have diminished 
long ago. 

And again in LXX, we read: 

My words are very easy to understand and very easy to practise. Yet 
no one under Heaven understands them; no one puts them into 

My words come out of a profound source, and my actions come out of 
a high principle. But people do not understand it. Therefore they do 
not understand me. 

Those who understand me are rare. That precisely is the proof that I 
am precious. The sage, indeed, wears clothes of coarse cloth, but 
carries within precious jade. 

The passages just quoted give a picture of a very original mind, an 
image of a man who looks gloomy, stupid and clumsy, standing 
aloof from the ‘clever’ people who spend their time in the petty 

Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu 


pleasures of life. He takes such an attitude because he is conscious 
of himself as utterly different from ordinary men. The important 
question we have to raise about this is: Whence does this difference 
come? The Tao Te Ching itself and the Chuang-tzu seem to give a 
definite answer to this question. The man feels himself different 
from others because he is conscious that he alone knows the real 
meaning of existence. And this he knows due to his metaphysical 
insight which is based on what Chuang-tzu calls tso wang ‘sitting in 
oblivion’ , that is, the experience of ecstatic union with the Absolute, 
the Way. The man who stands behind the utterances which we have 
quoted above is a philosopher-mystic, or a visionary shaman turned 
into a philosopher. 

It is highly significant for our specific purpose to note that the 
spirit of a philosophically developed shamanism pervades the whole 
of the Tao Te Ching. It is, so to speak, a living personal ‘center’ 
round which are co-ordinated all the basic ideas that we find in the 
book, whether the thought concerns the metaphysical structure of 
the universe, the nature of man, the art of governing people, or the 
practical ideal of life. And such an organic unity cannot be 
explained except on the assumption that the book, far from being a 
compilation made of fragmentary and disparate pieces of thought 
picked up at random from here and there, is in the main the work of 
a single author. 

In studying a book like the Tao Te Ching it is more important than 
anything else to grasp this personal unity underlying it as a whole, 
and to pinpoint it as the center of co-ordination for all its basic ideas. 
For, otherwise, we would not be in a position to penetrate the subtle 
structure of the symbolism of the Tao Te Ching and analyze with 
precision the basic ideas of its metaphysics. 

Turning from Lao-tzu to Chuang-tzu, we feel ourselves standing on 
a far more solid ground. For, although we are no better informed 
about his real life and identity, at least we know that we are dealing 
with an historical person, who did exist in about the middle of the 
fourth century B.C., as a contemporary of Mencius, the great 
shaman-poet Ch’ii Yuan of Ch’u to whom reference has been made, 
and the brilliant dialectician Hui Shih or Hui-tzu 14 with whom he 
himself was a good match in the mastery of the art of manipulating 
logical concepts. 

According to the account given by Ssu Ma Ch’ien in the above- 
mentioned Book of History, Chuang-tzu or Chuang Chou 15 was a 
native of Meng; 16 he was once an official at Ch’i-Yiian in Meng; he 
had tremendous erudition, but his doctrine was essentially based on 
the teachings of Lao-tzu; and his writing, which counted more than 
100,000 words, was for the most part symbolic or allegorical. 


Sufism and Taoism 

It is significant that Meng, which is mentioned by Ssu Ma Ch’ien 
as Chuang-tzu’s birthplace, is in present-day Ho Nan and was a 
place in the ancient state of Sung. 17 I regard this as significant 
because Sung was a country where the descendants of the ancient 
Yin 18 people were allowed to live after having been conquered by 
the Chou people. 19 There these descendants of the once-illustrious 
people, despised by the conquerors as the ‘conquered’ and con- 
stantly threatened and invaded by their neighbors, succeeded in 
preserving the religious beliefs and legends of their ancestors. The 
significance of this fact with regard to the thesis of the present study 
will at once be realized if one but remembers the animistic- 
shamanic spirit of Yin culture as manifested in its sacrificial cere- 
monies and rites of divination as well as in the myths connected with 
this dynasty. The people of Yin were traditionally famous for their 
cult of spirits and worship of the ‘God-above’. From of old the 
distinction between Yin and Chou was made by such a dictum as: 
‘Yin worships spirits while Chou places the highest value on human 
culture.’ 20 

Quite independently of the observation of this historical relation 
between the Yin Dynasty and the Sung people, Fung Yu Lang in his 
History of Chinese Philosophy 21 points out - quite rightly, to my 
mind - that the form of Chuang-tzu’s thought is close to that of the 
Ch’u people. ‘We should keep in mind’, he writes, ‘the fact that the 
state of Sung bordered Ch’u, making it quite possible that Chuang- 
tzu was influenced on the one hand by Ch’u, and at the same time 
was under the influence of the ideas of the Dialecticians. (Hui Shih, 
it will be remembered, was a native of Sung.) Thus by using the 
dialectics of the latter, he was able to put his soaring thoughts into 
order, and formulate a unified philosophical system.’ 

Of the ‘spirit of Ch’u’ we have talked in an earlier passage in 
connection with the basic structure of Lao-tzu’s thought. Fung Yu 
Lang compares the Elegies of Ch’u ( Ch’u Tz’u ) 22 with the Chuang- 
tzu and observes a remarkable resemblance between the two in the 
display of ‘a richness of imagination and freeness of spirit’. But he 
neglects to trace this resemblance down to its shamanic origin, so 
that the ‘richness of imagination and freeness of spirit’ is left unex- 
plained. However it may be, we shall refrain from going any further 
into the details of this problem at this point, for much more will be 
said in the following chapter. 

The problem of the relationship between Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu 
has been discussed at length by philologists. As we have already 
observed the major doctrines of Chuang-tzu have traditionally been 
regarded as being based upon the teachings of Lao-tzu. On this 
view, Lao-tzu of course was a predecessor of Chuang-tzu in Taoist 

Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu 


philosophy; the main lines of thought had been laid down by the 
former, and the latter simply took them over from him and 
developed them in his own way into a grand-scale allegorical system 
according to the dictates of his philosophical and literary ability. 

This view seems to be a natural conclusion drawn from the observa- 
tion of the following two facts: (1) the existence of an undeniable 
inner connection between the two in the very structure of their 
world-view and their mystical way of thinking; (2) Chuang-tzu 
himself often mentioning Lao-tzu as one of the earlier Taoist sages, 
and the expressions used being in some places almost the same. 

The matter, however, is not as simple as it looks at the first glance. 

In fact serious questions have been raised in modern times about 
this problem. The Tao Te Ching itself, to begin with, is nowhere 
referred to in the Chuang-tzu, although Lao-tzu, as a legendary 
figure, appears in its pages, and his ideas are mentioned. But this 
latter fact proves almost nothing conclusively, for we know that 
many of the persons who are made to play important roles in the 
Chuang-tzu are simply fictitious. Similarities in language may easily 
be explained away as the result either of later interpolations in the 
Tao Te Ching itself, or as going back to common sources. / 

Yang Jung Kuo, to whom reference has been made earlier, may 
be mentioned as a representative present-day scholar who not only 
doubts Lao-tzu’s having been a predecessor of Chuang-tzu, but 
goes a step further and completely reverses the chronological order. 

In an interesting chapter of his above-mentioned book, History of 
Thought in Ancient China 22 he decidedly takes the position that 
Chuang-tzu was not a disciple of Lao-tzu; that, on the contrary, the 
latter - or, to be more exact, the Tao Te Ching - was nothing other 
than a continuation and further development of the Chuang-tzu. 

And the way he defends his position is strictly philological; he tries 
to prove his position through an examination of some of the key- 
concepts common to Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. And he concludes 
that the Tao Te Ching presupposes the prior existence of the 
Chuang-tzu. For instance, the most important of all key-concepts of 
Taoism, tao (Wag) as the cosmic principle of natural growth, or 
Nature, is in the Chuang-tzu not yet fully developed in its inner 
structure. The concept is already there, he says, but it is as yet a 
mere beginning. The Tao Te Ching takes over this concept at this 
precise point and elaborates it into an absolute principle, the abso- 
lutely unknowable Source, which is pre-eternal 24 and from which 
emanate all things. 25 And Yang Jung Kuo thinks that this historical 
relation between the two - Chuang-tzu being the initial point and 
Lao-tzu representing the culmination - is observable throughout 
the whole structure of Taoist philosophy. 

This argument, highly interesting though it is, is not conclusive. 



Sufism and Taoism 

For the key-concepts in question allow of an equally justifiable 
explanation in terms of a process of development running from 
Lao-tzu to Chuang-tzu. As regards the metaphysics of tao, for 
instance, we have to keep in mind that Lao-tzu gives only the 
result, a definitely established monistic system of archetypal ima- 
gery whose center is constituted by the absolute Absolute, tao, which 
develops stage after stage by its own ‘natural’ creative activity down 
to the world of multiplicity. This ontology, as I have pointed out 
before, is understandable only on the assumption that it stands on 
the basis of an ecstatic or mystical experience of Existence. Lao-tzu, 
however, does not disclose this experiential aspect of his world-view 
except through vague, symbolic hints and suggestions. This is the 
reason why the Tao Te Ching tends to produce an impression of 
being a philosophical elaboration of something which precedes it. 
That ‘something which precedes it’, however, may not necessarily 
be something taken over from others. 

Chuang-tzu, on the other hand, is interested precisely in this 
experiential aspect of Taoist mysticism which Lao-tzu leaves 
untouched. He is not mainly concerned with constructing a 
metaphysics of a cosmic scale ranging from the ultimate Unknow- 
able down to the concrete world of variegated colors and forms. His 
chief concern is with the peculiar kind of ‘experience’ itself by which 
one penetrates the mystery of Existence. He tries to depict in detail, 
sometimes allegorically, sometimes theoretically, the very 
psychological or spiritual process through which one becomes more 
and more ‘illumined’ and goes on approaching the real structure of 
reality hidden behind the veil of sensible experience. 

His attitude is, in comparison with Lao-tzu, epistemological, 
rather than metaphysical. And this difference separates these two 
thinkers most fundamentally, although they share a common inter- 
est in the practical effects that come out of the supra-sensible 
experience of the Way. The same difference may also be formulated 
in terms of upward movement and downward movement. Lao-tzu 
tries to describe metaphysically how the absolute Absolute 
develops naturally into One, and how the One develops into Two, 
and the Two into Three, and the Three into ‘ten thousand things’ , 26 
It is mainly a description of an ontological - or emanational - 
movement downward, though he emphasizes also the importance of 
the concept of Return, i.e., the returning process of all things back 
to their origin. Chuang-tzu is interested in describing epistemologi- 
cally the rising movement of the human mind from the world of 
multiplicity and diversity up to the ontological plane where all 
distinctions become merged into One. 

Because of this particular emphasis on the epistemological aspect 
of the experience of the tao, Chuang-tzu does not take the trouble of 

Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu 

developing the concept itself of tao as a philosophical system. This is 
why his metaphysics of tao appears imperfect, or imperfectly 
developed. This, however, does not necessarily mean that he rep- 
resents chronologically an earlier stage than Lao-tzu. For, as we 
have just seen, the difference between them may very well be only 
the difference of emphasis. 

I shall now bring this chapter to a close by giving a brief explanation 
of the book itself known by the name Chuang-tzu. 

The important Bibliography contained in the Chronicle of the 
Han Dynasty 27 notes that the Chuang-tzu consists of fifty-two chap- 
ters. But the basic text of the book which we actually have in our 
hands has only thirty-three chapters. This is the result of editorial 
work done by Kuo Hsiang . 28 In fact all the later editions of the 
Chuang-tzu ultimately go back to this Kuo Hsiang recension. This 
eminent thinker of the Taoist school critically examined the tradi- 
tional text, left out a number of passages which he regarded as 
definitely spurious and worthless, and divided what survived this 
examination into three main groups. The first group is called 
Interior Chapters ( nei p’ien ) consisting of seven chapters. The sec- 
ond is called Exterior Chapters ( wai p’ien ) and consists of fifteen 
chapters. And the third is called Miscellaneous Chapters ( tza pi’en ) 
and contains eleven chapters. 

Setting aside the problem of possible additions and interpolations 
we might say generally that the Interior Chapters represent 
Chuang-tzu’s own thought and ideas, and are probably from his 
own pen. As to the two other groups, scholars are agreed to-day that 
they are mostly later developments, interpretations and elucida- 
tions added to the main text by followers of Chuang-tzu. Whether 
the Interior Chapters come from Chuang-tzu’s own pen or not, it is 
definite that they represent the oldest layer of the book and are 
philosophically as well as literarily the most essential part, while the 
Exterior and Miscellaneous Chapters are of but secondary impor- 

In the present study, I shall depend exclusively on the Interior 
Chapters. This I shall do for the reason just mentioned and also out 
of a desire to give consistency to my analytic description of 
Chuang-tzu’s thought . 29 


1. Ts’ui Shu (^a£in his r#:$g%tSlfuI) may here be mentioned as one of the most 
eminent writers of the Ch’ing Dynasty who raised serious doubts about the reliability 
of the so-called biography of Lao-tzu. Of the Tao Te Ching he says: ‘As for the 


Sufism and Taoism 

five-thousand-words-about-the-Tao-and-Virtue, no one knows who wrote it. There 
is no doubt, in any case, that it is a forgery by some of the followers of Yang Chu.' 

2. The name Lao-tzu, incidentally, simply means Old Master, the word ‘old’ in this 
context meaning almost the same as ‘immortal’. 

3. -Wa8 : Shih Chih, ntfiU, LXIII,ngj{£*tt?iJ#j , III. 

4. For my reason for translating r , as 4 an official of the royal Treasury 

of Chou’, see Shigeta Koyanagi: The Thought of Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu and Taoism 

, Tokyo, 1942, pp. 26-27. 

5. -EoSIMj , Complete Works of S. Tsuda, XIII, Tokyo, 
1964. The work was published earlier in 1927 as a volume of the series of publica- 
tions of Toyo Bunko. 

6. > ‘Only when the great Way declines, does the virtue of 
benevolence-righteousness arise.’ 

7. This passage will be translated and explained later. 

8. Peking, 1954, 3rd ed. 1955, Chap. VII, 4, pp. 245- 
247. At the outset (p. 245), the author states: The Book of Lao-tzu is, in my opinion, 
a product of an age subsequent to the flourishing of the school of Chuang-tzu in the 
Warring States period. 

9. «. 

10. Hit . We may note as quite a significant fact that this great poet of Ch’u was a 

contemporary of Chuang-tzu. According to a very detailed and excellent study done 
by Kuo Mo Jo nSSCSf^j), Ch’u Yuan was born in 340 B.C. and died in 278 

B.C., at the age of sixty-two. As for Chuang-tzu, an equally excellent study by Ma 
Hsu Lun (.lUOra has established that he lived c. 370 B.C.-300 B.C. 

1 1 . Henri Maspero: Le Taoism ( melanges posthumes sur les religions et Thistoire de 
la Chine, II) Paris, 1950, III. 

12. 4 Mother’ here symbolizes the Way ( tao ). Just as a child in the womb feeds on the 
mother without its doing anything active on its part, the Taoist sage lives in the bosom 
of the Way, free and careless, away from all artificial activity on his part. 

13. The text usually reads; • • ■ making ‘my Way’ the subject of the 


14. MW , M.T, known as one of the representatives of the 4 school of dialecticians ( pien 
chef, or ‘sophists’, in the Warring States period. The Chuang-tzu records several 
anecdotes in which Chuang-tzu is challenged by this logician, disputes with him, and 
scores a victory over him. The anecdotes may very well be fictitious -as almost all the 
anecdotes of the Chuang-tzu are - but they are very interesting in that they disclose 
the basic characteristics of the one as well as of the other. 

15. Chou being his personal name. 

16 . *. 

Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzii 

17 . 5 ^ ■ 

18. ®. 



20. nSffi*JHfirS:J(Cf. Hong Kong, 1957, pp. 1-2). 

21. Trans, by D. Bodde, 2 vols., Princeton, 1952-53; vol. I, pp. 221-222. 

22. r@^j, some of which are by the poet Ch’ii Yuan himself, Li Sao rflgSij being his 
representative work, while some others are by his followers. But, whether by Ch’u 
Yuan or by others, all the Elegies are through and through shamanic. Some of them 
describe in a typical way the spiritual, visionary journeys of a shaman in an ecstatic 

23. pp. 252-257. 

24. lit. ‘The Tao precedes Heaven and Earth’. The concept of tao in this 
respect may rightly be compared with the Islamic concept qadim. 

25. rig£3S#!J, lit. ‘The Tao produces, or makes grow, the ten thousand things’. 

26. See, Tao Te Ching, XLII. The process of ‘emanation’ will be dealt with later in 
full detail. 

27. TSIHj which was compiled in the 1st century B.C. 

28. $p$s, a scholar of the 4th century A.D. 

29. In quoting from the Chuang-tzu I shall give page numbers according to the 

Peking edition of Chuang-tzu Chi Shih by Kuo Ch’ing Fan ?£R?S, Peking, 

1 961 , vol. 1 . The editor was one of the outstanding philologists of the Ch’ ing dynasty, 
and his edition is a very useful one, because it gives the commentary by Kuo Hsiang 
himself (r&T&j) and two other equally famous glosses by Ch’eng Hsiiang Ying 

and Lu Te Ming rgT#J£), supplemented by some of the 

results of modern scholarship. As for Lao-tzu, I shall quote from the edition of Kao 
Heng: Lao-tzu Cheng KuW$- r^TiE^SJ, Shanghai, 1943, giving, as is usually done, 
chapter numbers instead of page numbers. 

II From Mythopoiesis to 

In the preceding chapter I indicated in a preliminary way the possi- 
bility of there being a very strong connection between Taoist 
philosophy and shamanism. I suggested that the thought or world- 
view of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu may perhaps be best studied 
against the background of the age-old tradition of the shamanic 
spirit in ancient China. The present chapter will be devoted to a 
more detailed discussion of this problem, namely, the shamanic 
background of Taoist philosophy as represented by the Tao Te 
Ching and Chuang-tzu. 

In fact, throughout the long history of Chinese thought there runs 
what might properly be called a ‘shamanic mode of thinking’. We 
observe this specific mode of thinking manifesting itself in diverse 
forms and on various levels in accordance with the particular cir- 
cumstances of time and place, sometimes in a popular, fantastic 
form, often going to the limit of superstition and obscenity, and 
sometimes in an intellectually refined and logically elaborated form. 
We observe also that this mode of thinking stands in sharp contrast 
to the realistic and rationalistic mode of thinking as represented by 
the austere ethical world-view of Confucius and his followers. 

Briefly stated, I consider the Taoist world-view of Lao-tzu and 
Chuang-tzu as a philosophical elaboration or culmination of this 
shamanic mode of thinking; as, in other words, a particular form of 
philosophy which grew out of the personal existential experience 
peculiar to persons endowed with the capacity of seeing things on a 
supra-sensible plane of consciousness through an ecstatic encounter 
with the Absolute and through the archetypal images emerging out 
of it. 

The Taoist philosophers who produced works like the Tao Te 
Ching and Chuang-tzu were ‘shamans’ on the one hand, as far as 
concerns the experiential basis of their world-vision, but they were 
on the other, intellectual thinkers who, not content to remain on the 
primitive level of popular shamanism, exercised their intellect in 
order to elevate and elaborate their original vision into a system of 
metaphysical concepts designed to explain the very structure of Being. 

From Mythopoiesis to Metaphysics 


Lao-tzu talks about sheng-jen 1 or the ‘sacred man’ . It is one of the 
key-concepts of his philosophical world-view, and as such plays an 
exceedingly important role in his thought. The ‘sacred man’ is a man 
who has attained to the highest stage of the intuition of the Way, to 
the extent of being completely unified with it, and who behaves 
accordingly in this world following the dictates of the Way that he 
feels active in himself. He is, in brief, a human embodiment of the 
Way. In exactly the same sense, Chuang-tzu speaks of chen-jen 2 or 
the ‘true man’, chih-jen 3 or the ‘ultimate man’, shen-jen 4 or the 
‘divine (or super-human) man’. The man designated by these vari- 
ous words is in reality nothing other than a philosophical shaman, or 
a shaman whose visionary intuition of the world has been refined 
and elaborated into a philosophical vision of Being. 

That the underlying concept has historically a close connection 
with shamanism is revealed by the etymological meaning of the 
word sheng here translated as ‘sacred’. The Shuo Wen Chieh Tzu, 
the oldest etymological dictionary (compiled in 100 A.D.), in its 
explanation of the etymological structure of this word states: 1 Sheng 
designates a man whose orifices of the ears are extraordinarily 
receptive’. 5 In other words, the term designates a man, endowed 
with an unusually keen ear, who is capable of hearing the voice of a 
super-natural being, god or spirit, and understands directly the will 
or intention of the latter. In the concrete historical circumstances of 
the ancient Yin Dynasty, such a man can be no other than a divine 
priest professionally engaged in divination. 

It is interesting to remark in this connection that in the Tao Te 
Ching the ‘sacred man’ is spoken of as the supreme ruler of a state, 
or ‘ king’ , and that this equation (Saint = King) is made as if it were a 
matter of common sense, something to be taken for granted. We 
must keep in mind that in the Yin Dynasty 6 shamanism was deeply 
related to politics. In that dynasty, the civil officials of the higher 
ranks who possessed and exercised a tremendous power over the 
administration of the state were all originally shamans. And in the 
earliest periods of the same dynasty, the Grand Shaman was the 
high priest-vizier, or even the king himself. 7 

This would seem to indicate that behind the ‘sacred man’ as the 
Taoist ideal of the Perfect Man there is hidden the image of a 
shaman, and that under the surface of the metaphysical world-view 
of Taoism there is perceivable a shamanic cosmology going back to 
the most ancient times of Chinese history. 

For the immediate purposes of the present study, we do not have to 
go into a detailed theoretical discussion of the concept of shaman- 
ism. 8 We may be content with defining it in a provisional way by 
saying that it is a phenomenon in which an inspired seer in a state of 


Sufism and Taoism 

ecstasy communes with supernatural beings, gods or spirits. As is 
well known, a man who has a natural capacity of this kind tends to 
serve in a primitive society as an intermediary between his tribes- 
men and the unseen world. 

As one of the most typical features of the shamanic mentality we 
shall consider first of all the phenomenon of mythopoiesis . Shamans 
are by definition men who, in their ecstatic-archetypal visions per- 
ceive things which are totally different from what ordinary people 
see in their normal states through their sensible experiences, and 
this naturally tends to induce the shamans to interpret and struc- 
turalize the world itself quite differently from ordinary people. That 
which characterizes their reality experience in the most remarkable 
way is that things appear to their ‘imaginal’ consciousness in sym- 
bolic and mythical forms. The world which a shaman sees in the 
state of trance is a world of ‘creative imagination’ , as Henry Corbin 
has aptly named it, however crude it may still be. On this level of 
consciousness, the things we perceive around us leave their natural, 
common-sense mode of existence and transform themselves into 
images and symbols. And those images, when they become sys- 
tematized and ordered according to the patterns of development 
which are inherent in them, tend to produce a mythical cosmology. 

The shamanic tradition in ancient China did produce such a 
cosmology. In the Elegies ofCh’u to which reference was made in 
the preceding chapter, we can trace almost step by step and in a very 
concrete form the actual process by which the shamanic experience 
of reality produces a peculiar, ‘imaginal’ cosmology. And by com- 
paring, further, the Elegies ofCh’u with a book like Huai Nan Tzu , 9 
we can observe the most intimate relationship that exists between 
the shamanic cosmology and Taoist metaphysics. There one sees sur 
le vif how the mythical world-view represented by the former 
develops and is transformed into the ontology of the Way. 

Another fact which seems to confirm the existence of a close 
relationship, both essential and historical, between the Taoist 
metaphysics and the shamanic vision of the world is found in the 
history of Taoism after the Warring States period. In fact, the 
development of Taoism, after having reached its philosophical 
zenith with Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, goes on steadily describing a 
curve of ‘degeneration’ - as it is generally called - even under a 
strong influence of the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu, and returns to 
its original mythopoeic form, revealing thereby its shamanic basis, 
until it reaches in the Later Han Dynasty a stage at which Taoism 
becomes almost synonymous with superstition, magic and witch- 
craft. The outward structure of Taoist metaphysics itself discloses 
almost no palpable trace of its shamanic background, but in the 

From Mythopoiesis to Metaphysics 


philosophical description of the tao by Lao-tzu, for instance, there is 
undeniably something uncanny and uncouth that would seem to be 
indicative of its original connection with shamanism. 

Lao-tzu depicts, as we shall see later in more detail, the Way {tao) as 
Something shadowy and dark, prior to the existence of Heaven and 
Earth, unknown and unknowable, impenetrable and intangible to 
the degree of only being properly described as Non-Being, and yet 
pregnant with forms, images and things, which lie latent in the midst 
of its primordial obscurity. The metaphysical Way thus depicted has 
an interesting counterpart in the popular mythopoeic imagination 
as represented by Shan Hai Ching , 10 in which it appears in a fantas- 
tic form. 

Three hundred and fifty miles further to the West there is a mountain 
called Heaven Mountain. The mountain produces much gold and 
jade. It produces also blue sulphide. And the River Ying takes its rise 
therefrom and wanders southwestward until it runs into the Valley of 
Boiling Water. Now in this mountain there lives a Divine Bird whose 
body is like a yellow sack, red as burning fire, who has six legs and 
four wings. It is strangely amorphous, having no face, no eyes, but it is 
very good at singing and dancing. In reality, this Bird is no other than 
the god Chiang. 

In the passage here quoted, two things attract our attention. One is 
the fact that the monster-bird is described as being good at singing 
and dancing. The relevance of this point to the particular problem 
we are now discussing will immediately be understood if one 
remembers that ‘singing and dancing’, i.e., ritual dance, invariably 
accompanies the phenomenon of shamanism. Dancing in ancient 
China was a powerful means of seeking for the divine Will, of 
inducing the state of ecstasy in men, and of ‘calling down’ spirits 
from the invisible world. The above-mentioned dictionary, Shuo 
Wen, defines the word wu (shaman) as ‘a woman who is naturally fit 
for serving the formless (i.e., invisible beings) and who, by means of 
dancing call down spirits ’ . 11 It is interesting that the same dictionary 
explains the character itself which represents this word, M , by 
saying that it pictures a woman dancing with two long sleeves 
hanging down on the right and the left. In the still earlier stage of its 
development , 12 it represents the figure of a shaman holding up jade 
with two hands in front of a spirit or god. 

It is also significant that the monster is said to be a bird, which is 
most probably an indication that the shamanic dancing here in 
question was some kind of feather-dance in which the shaman was 
ritually ornamented with a feathered headdress. 

The second point to be noticed in the above-given passage from 
the Shan Hai Ching - and this point is of far greater relevance to the 


Sufism and Taoism 

present study than the first - is the particular expression used in the 
description of the monster’s visage, hun tun, 13 which I have provi- 
sionally translated above as ‘strangely amorphous’. It means a 
chaotic state of things, an amorphous state where nothing is clearly 
delineated, nothing is clearly distinguishable, but which is far from 
being sheer non-being; it is, on the contrary, an extremely obscure 
‘presence’ in which the existence of something - or some things, still 
undifferentiated - is vaguely and dimly sensed. 

The relation between this word as used in this passage and 
Chuang-tzu’s allegory of the divine Emperor Hun Tun has been 
noticed long ago by philologists of the Ch’ing dynasty. The com- 
mentator of the Shan Hai Ching, Pi Yuan, for instance, explicitly 
connects this description of the monster with the featureless face of 
the Emperor Hun Tun. 

The allegory given by Chuang-tzu reads as follows: 14 

The Emperor of the South Sea was called Shu, the Emperor of the 
North Sea was called Hu , 15 and the Emperor of the central domain 
was called Hun Tun . 16 Once, Shu and Hu met in the domain of Hun 
Tun, who treated both of them very well. Thereupon, Shu and Hu 
deliberated together over the way in which they might possibly repay 
his goodness. 

'All men’, they said, ‘are possessed of seven orifices for seeing, 
hearing, eating, and breathing. But this one (i.e., Hun Tun) alone 
does not possess any (orifice). Come, let us bore some for him.’ 

They went on boring one orifice every day, until on the seventh day 
Hun Tun died. 

This story describes in symbolic terms the destructive effect exer- 
cised by the essentialist type of philosophy on the Reality. It is a 
merciless denunciation of this type of philosophy on behalf of a 
peculiar form of existentialist philosophy which, as we shall see 
later, Chuang-tzu was eager to uphold. Shu and Hu, symbolizing the 
precariousness of human existence, met in the central domain of 
Hun Tun; they were very kindly treated and they became happy for 
a brief period of time as their names themselves indicate. This event 
would seem to symbolize the human intellect stepping into the 
domain of the supra-sensible world of ‘un-differentiation’, the 
Absolute, and finding a momentary felicity there - the ecstasy of a 
mystical intuition of Being, which, regrettably, lasts but for a short 
time. Encouraged by this experience, the human intellect, or 
Reason, tries to bore holes in the Absolute, that is to say, tries to 
mark distinctions and bring out to actuality all the forms that have 
remained latent in the original undifferentiation. The result of 
‘boring’ is nothing but the philosophy of Names ( ming ) as rep- 
resented by Confucius and his school, an essentialist philosophy, 
where all things are clearly marked, delineated, and sharply disting- 

From Mythopoiesis to Metaphysics 305 

uished from one another on the ontological level of essences. But 
the moment orifices were bored in Hun Tun’s face, he died. This 
means that the Absolute can be brought into the grasp of Reason by 
‘essential’ distinctions being made in the reality of the Absolute, 
and becomes thereby something understandable; but the moment it 
becomes understandable to Reason, the Absolute dies. 

It is not time yet for us to go into the details of the existentialist 
position taken by Chuang-tzu. I simply wanted to show by this 
example how closely the shamanic mythopoeic imagination was 
originally related with the birth of Taoist philosophy, and yet, at the 
same time, how far removed the latter was in its philosophical 
import from the former. 

This sense of distance between shamanism and philosophy may 
be alleviated to a considerable extent if we place between the two 
terms of the relation the cosmogonical story - a product of the same 
mythopoeic mentality - which purports to explain how Heaven and 
Earth came into being. It is not exactly a ‘story’ ; it is a ‘theory’ and is 
meant to be one. It is a result of a serious attempt to describe and 
explain theoretically the very origin of the world of Being and the 
process by which all things in the world have come to acquire the 
forms with which we are now familiar. The cosmogony constitutes 
in this sense the middle term - structurally, if not historically - 
between the crude shamanic myth and the highly developed 
metaphysics of the Way. 

Here we give in translation the cosmogony as formulated in the 
above-mentioned Huai Nan Tzu : 17 

Heaven and Earth had no form yet. It was a state of formless fluidity; 
nothing stable, nothing definite. This state is called the Great Begin- 
ning. The Great Beginning produced 18 a spotless void. The spotless 
void produced the Cosmos. The Cosmos produced (the all- 
pervading) vital energy. 11 ' The vital energy had in itself distinctions. 
That which was limpid and light went up hovering in thin layers to 
form Heaven, while that which was heavy and turbid coagulated and 
became Earth. The coming together of limpid and fine elements is 
naturally easy, while the coagulation of heavy and turbid elements is 
difficult to occur. For this reason, Heaven was the first to be formed, 
then Earth became established. 

Heaven and Earth gathered together the finer elements of their vital 
energy to form the principles of Negative (Yin) and Positive (Yang), 
and the Negative and Positive gathered together the finer elements of 
their vital energy to constitute the four seasons. The four seasons 
scattered their vital energy to bring into being the ten thousand 
things. The caloric energy of the Positive principle, having been 
accumulated, gave birth to fire, and the essence of the energy of fire 
became the sun. The energy of coldness peculiar to the Negative 
principle, having been accumulated became water, and the essence of 


Sufism and Taoism 

the energy of water became the moon. The overflow of the sun and 
the moon, having become refined, turned into stars and planets. 
Heaven received the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Earth received 
water, puddles, dust, and soil. 

In the passage her quoted we encounter again that undifferen- 
tiated, featureless Something, the primordial Chaos, this time as a 
cosmogonic principle or the Great Beginning, representing the state 
of affairs before the creation of the world. The Great Beginning is 
certainly different from the mythical monster of the Shan Hai Ching 
and the metaphysical principle of the Tao Te Ching. But it is evident 
at the same time that these three are but different ‘phenomena’ of 
one and the same thing. 

Similarly in a different passage 20 in the same book we read: 

Long long ago, when Heaven and Earth were still non-existent, there 
were no definite figures, no definite forms. Mysteriously profound, 
opaque and dark: nothing was distinguishable, nothing was fathom- 
able; limitlessly remote, vast and void; nobody would have discerned 
its gate. 

Then there were born together two divinities, and they began to rule 
Heaven and to govern Earth. Infinitely deep (was Heaven), and no 
one knew where it came to a limit. Vastly extensive (was Earth), and 
no one knew where it ceased. 

Thereupon (Being) divided itself into the Negative and the Positive, 
which, then, separated into the eight cardinal directions. 

The hard and the soft complemented each other, and as a result the 
ten thousand things acquired their definite forms. The gross and 
confused elements of the vital energy produced animals (including 
beasts, birds, reptiles and fish). The finer vital energy produced man. 
This is the reason why the spiritual properly belongs to Heaven, while 
the bodily belongs to Earth. 

Historically speaking, this and similar cosmogonical theories seem 
to have been considerably influenced by Taoism and its metaphys- 
ics. Structurally, however, they furnish a connecting link between 
myth and philosophy, pertaining as they do to both of them and yet 
differing from them in spirit and structure. The cosmogony discloses 
to our eyes in this sense the mythopoeic background of the 
metaphysics of the Way as formulated by Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. 

In a similar fashion, we can bring to light the subjective - i.e., 
epistemological - aspect of the relationship between shamanism 
and Taoist philosophy by comparing the above-mentioned Elegies 
ofCh’u and the books of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. The possibility of 
obtaining an interesting result from a comparative study of Ch’u 
Yuan, the great shaman-poet of the state of Ch’u, and the 

From Mythopoiesis to Metaphysics 


philosophers of Taoism was noted long ago by Henri Maspero , 21 
although death prevented him from fully developing his idea. 

In the Li Sao 22 and the Yuan Yu 23 the shaman-poet describes in 
detail the process of visionary states through which a soul in an 
ecstatic state, helped and assisted by various gods and spirits, 
ascends to the heavenly city where the ‘eternal beings’ live. This is in 
reality nothing but a description of a shamanic unio mystica. And 
the shamanic ascension is paralleled by a visionary ascension of a 
similar structure in the Chuang-tzu , the only essential difference 
between the two being that in the latter case the experience of the 
spiritual journey is refined and elaborated into the form of a 
metaphysical contemplation. Just as the shaman-poet experiences 
in his ecstatic oblivion of the ego a kind of immortality and eternity, 
so the Taoist philosopher experiences immortality and ‘long life’ in 
the midst of the eternal Way, by being unified with it. It is interesting 
to notice in this respect that the poet says in the final stage of his 
spiritual experience that he ‘transcends the Non-Doing , 24 reaches 
the primordial Purity, and stands side by side with the Great Begin- 
ning ’. 25 In Taoist terminology, we would say that the poet at this 
stage ‘stands side by side with the Way’, that is, ‘is completely 
unified with the Way’, there being no discrepancy between them. 

In the Li Sao the poet does not ascend to such a height. Standing 
on the basic assumption that both the Li Sao and Yuan Yu are 
authentic works of Ch’u Yuan, Maspero remarks that the Li Sao 
represents an earlier stage in the spiritual development of the poet, 
at which he, as a shaman, has not yet attained to the final goal, 
whereas the Yuan Yu represents a later stage at which the poet ‘has 
already reached the extremity of mysticism’. 

Such an interpretation is of course untenable if we know for 
certain that the Yuan Yu is a work composed by a later poet and 
surreptitiously attributed to Ch’u Yuan. In any case, the poem in its 
actual form is markedly Taoistic, and some of the ideas are undeni- 
ably borrowings from Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Here again, 
however, the problem of authenticity is by no means a matter of 
primary importance to us. For even if we admit that the poem - or 
some parts of - it is a Han Dynasty forgery, it remains true that the 
very fact that Taoist metaphysics could be so naturally transformed 
- or brought back - into a shamanic world-vision is itself a proof 
of a real congeniality that existed between shamanism and 

A detailed analytic comparison between the Elegies ofCh’u and 
the books of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu is sure to make an extremely 
fruitful and rewarding work. But to do so will take us too far afield 
beyond the main topic of the present study. Besides, we are going to 
describe in detail in the first chapters of this book the philosophical 

308 Sufism and Taoism 

version of the spiritual journey which has just been mentioned. And 
this must suffice us for our present purposes. 

Let us now leave the problem of the shamanic origin of Taoism, 
and turn to the purely philosophical aspects of the latter. Our main 
concern will henceforward be exclusively with the actual structure 
of Taoist metaphysics and its key-concepts. 


1. fiA- 

2. *A- 

3. $A, i.e., a man who has attained to the furthest limit (of perfection). 

4. #A. We may note that this and the preceding words all refer to one and the same 
concept which is the Taoist counterpart of the concept of insan kamil or the Perfect 
Man, which we discussed in the first part of this study. 

5. rmxmzy. ruinii, 

6. Reference has been made in the preceding chapter to the possible historical 
connection between the Yin dynasty and the spirit of the state of Ch’u. 

7. For more details about the problem of the shaman ((iwu) representing the 
highest administrative power in the non-secularized state in ancient China, see for 
example Liang Ch’i Ch’ao: A History of Political Thought in the Periods Prior to the 
Ch’in Dynasty %%% rftggt&S.If.ltj , 1923, Shanghai, Ch. II. 

8. I would refer the reader to Mircea Eliade’s basic work: Shamanism, Archaic 
Techniques of Ecstasy, English tr., London, 1964. 

9. rjtii f j, an eclectic work compiled by thinkers of various schools who were 
gathered by the king of Huai Nan, Liu AniiJ^, at his court, in the second century B.C. 
The book is of an eclectic nature, but its basic thought is that of the Taoist school. 

10. r one of the most important source-books for Chinese mythology, giving 
a detailed description of all kinds of mythological monsters living in mountains and 
seas. The following quotation is taken from a new edition of the book, 

with a commentary by Pi Yuan of the Ch’ing dynasty, 

Tai Pei, 1945, p. 57. 

11. hi. 

12. The character /gas it appears in the oracle-bones is: ® or/fi. 

13. The word is written in the Chuang-tzu f-Pti. 

14. Chapter VII entitled ‘Fit to be Emperors and Kings’, p. 309. 

15. Both shu (fJ5) and hu (£?.) literally mean a brief span of time, symbolizing in this 
allegory the precariousness of existence. 

From Mythopoiesis to Metaphysics 


16. Important to note is the fact that hun tun , the ‘ undifferentiation’ is placed in the 
center. It means that hun tun represents the true ‘ reality’ of Being, bordering on both 
sides on ‘precariousness’. The philosophical implication of all this will be elucidated 
in a later chapter. 

17. rjftiffTj, III, T’ien Wen A£ll. 

18. The received text as it stands is apparently unintelligible. Following the emenda- 
tion suggested by Wang Yin Chih (T'j|2 ) I read: r&B Af^ig^TjSl I ■ 

19. The ‘all-pervading vital energy’ is a clumsy translation of the Chinese wordc/i7 

Si , which plays an exceedingly important role in the history of Chinese thought. It is a 
‘reality’, proto-material and formless, which cannot be grasped by the senses. It is a 
kind of vital force, a creative principle of all things; it pervades the whole world, and 
being immanent in everything, molds it and makes it grow into what it really is. 
Everything that has a ‘form’, whether animate or inanimate, has a share in the ch’i. 
The concept of ch’i has been studied by many scholars. As one of the most detailed 
analytic studies of it we may mention Teikichi Hiraoka: A Study of Ch’i in Huai Nan 
Tzu,^mm Tokyo 1969. 

20. ibid., VII, $}Wn)||. 

21. ibid., III. 

22. rgSj. 

23. TiilSj. Many scholars entertain serious doubts - with reason, I think - as to the 

authenticity of this important and interesting work. Most probably it is a product of 
the Han Dynasty (see composed in the very atmosphere of 

a fully developed philosophy of Taoism. 

24. wu-wei , one of the key-terms of Taoist philosophy, which we shall analyze 
in a later passage. ‘Non-Doing’ means, in short, man’s abandoning all artificial, 
unnatural effort to do something, and identifying himself completely with the activity 
of Nature which is nothing other than the spontaneous self-manifestation of the Way 
itself. Here the poet claims that at the final stage of his spiritual development he goes 
even beyond the level of ‘non-activity’ and of being one with Nature, and steps 
further into the very core of the Way. In his consciousness - or in his ‘non- 
consciousness’, we should rather say - his is no longer a human being; he is deified. 


Ill Dream and Reality 

In the foregoing chapter we talked about the myth of Chaos, the 
primordial undifferentiation which preceded the beginning of the 
cosmos. In its original shamanic form, the figure of Chaos as a 
featureless monster looks very bizarre, primitive and grotesque. 
Symbolically, however, it is of profound importance, for the 
philosophical idea symbolized by it directly touches the core of the 
reality of Being. 

In the view of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, the reality of Being is 
Chaos. And therein lies the very gist of their ontology. But this 
proposition does not mean that the world we live in is simply chaotic 
and disorderly as an empirical fact. For the empirical world, as we 
daily observe it, is far from being as ‘featureless’ and ‘amorphous’ as 
the face of the bird-monster of the Shan Hai Ching. On the con- 
trary, it is a world where we observe many things that are clearly 
distinguishable from one another, each having its peculiar ‘name’, 
and each being definitely delineated and determined. Everything 
therein has its own place; the things are neatly ordered in a hier- 
archy. We live in such a world, and do perceive our world in such a 
light. According to the Taoist philosophers, that precisely is 
the malady of our Reason. And it is difficult for an ordinary mind 
not to see the distinctions in the world. The world, in brief, is not 

It will be the first task of a Chuang-tzu to shatter to pieces these 
seemingly watertight compartments of Being, allowing us to have a 
glimpse into the fathomless depth of primeval Chaos. But this is not 
in any way an easy task. Chuang-tzu actually tries many different 
approaches. Probably the easiest of them all for us to understand is 
his attempt at the ‘chaotification’ - if we are allowed to coin such a 
word - of ‘dream’ and ‘reality’. By a seemingly very simple descrip- 
tive and narrative language, he tries to raise us immediately to an 
ontological level where ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ cease to be distinguish- 
able from each other , 1 and merge together into something 

The following is a very famous passage in the Chuang-tzu, in 

Dream and Reality 


which the sage tries to give us a glimpse of the ‘chaotification of 
things : 2 

Once I Chuang Chou, 3 dreamt that 1 was a butterfly. Flitting about 
at ease and to my heart’s content, I was indeed a butterfly. Happy and 
cheerful, I had no consciousness of being Chou. 

All of a sudden I awoke, and lo, I was Chou. 

Did Chou dream that he was a butterfly? Or did the butterfly dream 
that it was Chou? How do I know? There is, however, undeniably a 
difference between Chou and a butterfly. This situation is what I 
would call the Transmutation of things. 

The latter half of this passage touches upon the central theme of 
Chuang-tzu. In the kind of situation here described, he himself and 
the butterfly have become undistinguishable, each having lost his or 
its essentia] self-identity. And yet, he says, ‘there is undeniably a 
difference between Chou and a butterfly’ . This last statement refers 
to the situation of things in the phenomenal world, which man 
ordinarily calls ‘reality’ . On this level of existence, ‘man’ cannot be 
‘butterfly’ , and ‘butterfly’ cannot be ‘man’ . These two things which 
are thus definitely different and distinguishable from each other do 
lose their distinction on a certain level of human consciousness, and 
go into the state of undifferentiation - Chaos. 

This ontological situation is called by Chuang-tzu the Transmu - 
tion of things, wu hua . 4 The wu hua is one of the most importan 
key-terms of Chuang-tzu’ s philosophy. It will be dealt with in detail 
presently. Here I shall give in translation another passage in which 
the same concept is explained through similar images . 5 

A man drinks wine in a dream, and weeps and wails in the morning 
( when he awakes) . A man weeps in a (sad) dream, but in the morning 
he goes joyously hunting. While he is dreaming he is not aware that 
he is dreaming; he even tries (in his dream) to interpret his dream. 
Only after he awakes from sleep does he realize that it was a dream. 
Likewise, only when one experiences a Great Awakening does one 
realize that all this 6 is but a Big Dream. But the stupid imagine that 
they are actually awake. Deceived by their petty intelligence they 
consider themselves smart enough to differentiate between what is 
noble and what is ignoble. How deep-rooted and irremediable their 

stupidity is! , 

In reality, however, both I and you are a dream. Nay, the very fact 
that I am telling you that you are dreaming is itself a dream 
This kind of statement is liable to be labeled bizarre sophistry. (But it 
looks so precisely because it reveals the Truth), and a great sage 
capable of penetrating its mystery is barely to be expected to appear 
in the world in ten thousand years. 

The same idea is repeated in the following passage : 8 


Sufism and Taoism 


Suppose you dream that you are a bird. (In that state) you do soar up 
into the sky. Suppose you dream that you are a fish. You do go down 
deep into the pool. (While you are experiencing all this in your 
dream, what you experience is your ‘reality’.) Judging by this, 
nobody can be sure whether we -you and I, who are actually engaged 
in conversation in this way - are awake or just dreaming . 9 

Such a view reduces the distinction between Me and Thee to a mere 
semblance, or at least it renders the distinction very doubtful and 

Each one of us is convinced that ‘this’ is I (and consequently ‘other 
than this’ is You or He). On reflexion, however, how do I know for 
sure that this ‘I’ which I consider as ‘I’ is really my ‘I ’? 10 

Thus even my own ‘ego’ which I regard as the most solid and reliable 
core of existence, - and the only absolutely indubitable entity even 
when I doubt the existence of everything else, in the Cartesian sense 
- becomes transformed all of a sudden into something dreamlike 
and unreal. 

Thus by what might seem ‘bizarre sophistry’ Chuang-tzu reduces 
everything to a Big Dream. This abrupt negation of ‘reality’ is but a 
first step into his philosophy, for his philosophy does have a positive 
side. But before disclosing the positive side - which our ‘petty 
intelligence’ can never hope to understand - he deals a mortal blow 
to this ‘intelligence’ and Reason by depriving them of the very 
ground on which they stand. 

The world is a dream; that which we ordinarily consider solid 
‘reality’ is a dream. Furthermore, the man who tells others that 
everything is a dream, and those who are listening to his teaching, 
are all part of a dream. 

What does Chuang-tzu want to suggest by this? He wants to 
suggest that Reality in the real sense of the word is something totally 
different from what Reason regards as ‘ reality’ . In order to grasp the 
true meaning of this, our normal consciousness must first lose its 
self-identity. And together with the ‘ego’, all the objects of its 
perception and intellection must also lose their self-identities and 
be brought into a state of confusion which we called above the 
primordial Chaos. This latter is an ontological level at which 
‘dream’ and ‘reality’ lose the essential distinction between them, at 
which the significance itself of such distinctions is lost. On its subjec- 
tive side, it is a state of consciousness in which nothing any longer 
remains ‘itself’, and anything can be anything else. It is an entirely 
new order of Being, where all beings, liberated from the shackles of 
their semantic determinations freely transform themselves into one 
another. This is what Chuang-tzu calls the Transmutation of things. 
The Transmutation of things, as conceived by Chuang-tzu, must 

Dream and Reality 

be understood in terms of two different points of reference. On the 
one hand, it designates a metaphysical situation in which all things 
are found to be ‘transmutable’ to one another, so much so that 
ultimately they become merged together into an absolute Unity. In 
this sense it transcends ‘time’ ; it is a supra-temporal order of things. 
In the eye of one who has experienced the Great Awakening, all 
things are One; all things are the Reality itself. At the same time, 
however, this unique Reality discloses to his eye a kaleidoscopic 
view of infinitely various and variegated things which are ‘essen- 
tially’ different one from another, and the world of Being, in this 
aspect, is manifold and multiple. Those two aspects are to be recon- 
ciled with each other by our considering these ‘things’ as so many 
phenomenal forms of the absolute One. The ‘unity of existence’, 
thus understood, constitutes the very core of the philosophy of 
Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. 

The same Transmutation can, on the other hand, be understood 
as a temporal process. And this is also actually done by Chuang-tzu. 
A thing, a , continues to subsist as a for some time; then, when the 
limit which has been naturally assigned to it comes, 1 1 it ceases to be a 
and becomes transmuted or transformed into another thing, b. 
From the viewpoint of supra-temporality, a and b are metaphysi- 
cally one and the same thing, the difference between them being 
merely a matter of phenomenon. In this sense, even before a ceases 
to be a - that is, from the beginning -a is b, and b is a. There is, then, 
no question of a ‘becoming’ b, because a, by the very fact that it is a, 
is already b. 

From the second viewpoint, however, a is a and nothing else. And 
this a ‘becomes’, in a temporal process, something else, b. The 
former ‘changes’ into the latter. But here again we run into the same 
metaphysical Unity, by, so to speak, a roundabout way. For a, by 
‘becoming’ and ‘changing into’ b, refers itself back to its own origin 
and source. The whole process constitutes an ontological circle, 
because through the very act of becoming b , a simply ‘becomes’ 
itself - only in a different form. 

Applied to the concepts of ‘life’ and ‘death’, such an idea natur- 
ally produces a peculiar Philosophy of Life, a basically optimistic 
view of human existence. It is ‘optimisic’ because it completely 
obliterates the very distinction between Life and Death. Viewed in 
this light, the so-called problem of Death turns out to be but a 

Although it is thus a pseudo-problem from the point of view of 
those who have seen the Truth, Chuang-tzu often takes up this 
theme and develops his thought around it. Indeed, it is one of his 
most favorite topics. This is so because actually it is a problem, or the 
problem. Death, in particular, happens to be the most disquieting 


Sufism and Taoism 

problem for the ordinary mind. And a man’s having overcome the 
existential angoisse of being faced constantly and at every moment 
with the horror of his own annihilation is the sign of his being at the 
stage of a ‘true man’. Besides, since it happens to be such a vital 
problem, its solution is sure to bring home to the mind the 
significance of the concept of Transmutation. Otherwise, every- 
thing else is exactly in the same ontological situation as Life and 

Now to go back to the point at which Chuang-tzu has reduced 
everything to a dreamlike mode of existence. Nothing in the world 
of Being is solidly self-subsistent. In scholastic terminology we 
might describe the situation by saying that nothing has - except in 
semblance and appearance - an unchangeable ‘quiddity’ or 
‘essence’. And in this fluid state of things, we are no longer sure of 
the self-identity of anything whatsoever. We never know whether a 
is really a itself. 

And this essential dreamlike uncertainty of indetermination 
naturally holds true of Life and Death. The conceptual structure of 
this statement will easily be seen if one replaces the terms Life and 
Death by a and b, and tries to represent the whole situation in terms 
of the a-b pattern which has been given above. 

Speaking of a ‘true man’ from the state of Lu, Chuang-tzu says: 

He does not care to know why he lives. Nor does he care to know why 
he dies. He does not even know which comes first and which comes 
last, (i.e., Life and Death are in his mind undifferentiated from each 
other, the distinction between them being insignificant). Following 
the natural course of Transmutation he has become a certain thing; 
now he is simply awaiting further Transmutation. ]j 

Besides, when a man is undergoing Transmutation, how can he be 
sure that he is (in reality) not being transmuted? And when he is not 
undergoing Transmutation, how can he be sure that he has (in 
reality) not already been transmuted ? 12 

In a similar passage concerned with the problem of Death and the 
proper attitude of ‘true men’ toward it, Chuang-tzu lets Confucius 
make the following statement . 13 Confucius here, needless to say, is a 
fictitious figure having nothing to do with the historical person, but 
there is of course a touch of irony in the very fact that Confucius is 
made to make such a remark. 

They (i.e., the ‘true men’) are those who freely wander beyond the 
boundaries (i.e., the ordinary norms of proper behavior), while men 
like myself are those who wander freely only within the boundaries. 

‘ Beyond the boundaries’ and ‘within the boundaries’ are poles asun- 
der from one another. 

Dream and Reality 


They are those who, being completely unified with the Creator 
Himself, take delight in being in the realm of the original Unity of the 
vital energy 14 before it is divided into Heaven and Earth. 

To their minds Life (or Birth) is just the growth of an excrescence, a 
wart, and Death is the breaking of a boil, the bursting of a tumor. 
Such being the case, how should we expect them to care about the 
question as to which is better and which is worse - Life or Death? 
They simply borrow different elements, and put them together in the 
common form of a body . 15 Hence they are conscious neither of their 
liver nor of their gall, and they leave aside their ears and eyes . 16 
Abandoning themselves to infinitely recurrent waves of Ending and 
Beginning, they go on revolving in a circle, of which they know 
neither the beginning-point nor the ending-point. 

For Chuang-tzu Death is nothing but one of the endlessly varieg- 
ated phenomenal forms of one eternal Reality. To our mind’s eye 
this metaphysical Reality actualizes itself and develops itself as a 
process evolving in time. But even when conceived in such a tem- 
poral form, the process depicts only an eternally revolving circle, of 
which no one knows the real beginning and the real end. Death is 
but a stage in this circle. When it occurs, one particular phenomenal 
form is effaced from the circle and disappears only to reappear as an 
entirely different phenomenal form. Nature continuously makes 
and unmakes. But the circle itself, that is, Reality itself is always 
there unchanged and unperturbed. Being one with Reality, the 
mind of a ‘true man’ never becomes perturbed. 

A ‘true man’, Chuang-tzu related , 17 saw his own body hideously 
deformed in the last days of his life. He hobbled to a well, looked at 
his image reflected in the water and said, ‘Alas! That the Creator has 
made me so crooked and deformed!’ Thereupon a friend of his 
asked him, ‘Do you resent your condition?’ Here is the answer that 
the dying ‘true man’ gave to this question: 

No, why should I resent it? It may be that the process of Transmuta- 
tion will change my left arm into a rooster. I would, then, simply use it 
to crow to tell the coming of the morning. It may be that the process 
goes on and might change my right arm into a crossbow. I would, 
then, simply use it to shoot down a bird for roasting. It may be that the 
process will change my buttocks into a wheel and my spirit into a 
horse. I would, then, simply ride in the carriage. I would not have 
even to put another horse to it. 

Whatever we obtain (i.e., being born into this world in a particular 
form) is due to the coming of the time. Whatever we lose (i.e., death) 
is also due to the arrival of the turn. We must be content with the 
‘time’ and accept the ‘turn’. Then neither sorrow nor joy will ever 
creep in. Such an attitude used to be called among the Ancients 
‘loosing the tie ’. 18 If man cannot loose himself from the tie, it is 
because ‘things’ bind him fast. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Dream and Reality 


Another ‘true man’ had a visit in his last moments from one of his 
friends, who was also a ‘true man’. The conversation between them 
as related by Chuang-tzu 19 is interesting. The visitor seeing the wife 
and children who stood around the man on the deathbed weeping 
and wailing, said to them, ‘Hush! Get away! Do not disturb him as 
he is passing through the process of Transmutation!’ 

Then turning to the dying man, he said: 

How great the Creator is! What is he going to make of you now? 
Whither is he going to take you? Is he going to make of you a rat’s 
liver? Or is he going to make of you an insect’s arm?’ 

To this the dying man replies: 

(No matter what the Creator makes of me, I accept the situation and 
follow his command.) Don’t you see? In the relationship between a 
son and his parents, the son goes wherever they command him to go, 
east, west, south, or north. But the relation between the Yin-Yang 
(i.e., the Law regulating the cosmic process of Becoming) and a man 
is incomparably closer than the relation between him and his parents. 
Now they (the Yin and Yang) have brought me to the verge of death. 
Should I refuse to submit to them, it would simply be an act of 
obstinacy on my part . . . 

Suppose here is a great master smith, casting metal. If the metal 
should jump up and begin to shout, ‘I must be made into a sword like 
Mo Yeh , 20 nothing else!’ The smith would surely regard the metal as 
something very evil. (The same would be true of) a man who, on the 
ground that he has by chance assumed a human form, should insist 
and say: ‘I want to be a man, only man! Nothing else!’ The Creator 
would surely regard him as of a very evil nature. 

Just imagine the whole world as a big furnace, and the Creator as a 
master smith. Wherever we may go, everything will be all right. 
Calmly we will go to sleep (i.e., die), and suddenly we will find 
ourselves awake (in a new form of existence). 

The concept of the Transmutation of things as conceived by 
Chuang-tzu. might seem to resemble the doctrine of ‘transmigra- 
tion’. But the resemblance is only superficial. Chuang-tzu does not 
say that the soul goes on transmigrating from one body to another. 
The gist of his thought on this point is that everything is a pheno- 
menal form of one unique Reality which goes on assuming succes- 
sively different forms of self-manifestation. Besides, as we have 
seen before, this temporal process itself is but a phenomenon. 
Properly speaking, all this is something taking place on an eternal, 
a-temporal level of Being. All things are one eternally, beyond 
Time and Space. 


1. We may do well to recall at this stage a chapter in the first part of the present 
study, where we took the undifferentiation or indistinction between ‘dream’ and 
‘reality’ as our starting-point for going into the metaphysical world of Ibn ‘Arabi. 
There Ibn ‘Arabi speaks of the ontological level of ‘images’ and ‘similitudes’. 
Chuang-tzu, as we shall see presently, uses a different set of concepts for interpreting 
his basic vision. But the visions themselves of these two thinkers are surprisingly 
similar to each other. 

2. II, p. 1 12. The heading itself of this Chapter, ch’i wu is quite significant in this 
respect, meaning as it does ‘equalization of things’. 

3. mini, the real name of Chuang-tzu. 

4. %{t, meaning literally: ‘things-transform’. 

5. II., pp. 104-105. 

6. i.e., everything that one experiences in this world of so-called ‘reality’. ‘Great 
Awakening’: ta chiieh 

7. i.e., being unaware of the fact that ‘life’ itself, the ‘reality’ itself is but a dream. 

8. VI., p. 275. 

9. i.e., it may very well be that somebody - or something - is dreaming that he (or it) 
is a man, and thinks in the dream that he is talking with somebody else. 

10. ibid. 

11. This problem will be dealt with in detail in a later chapter which will be devoted 
to the problem of determinism and freedom in the world-view of Taoism. 

1 2. The meaning of this sentence can, I think, be paraphrazed as follows. It may well 
be that ‘being transmuted’ (for example, from Life to Death, i.e., ‘to die’) is in reality 
‘not to be transmuted’ (i.e., ‘not to die’). Likewise nobody knows for sure whether by 
‘not being transmuted’ (i.e., remaining alive without dying) he has already been 
transmuted (i.e., is already dead). The original sentence runs: 

TJltffTTbSitoBft:. Kuo Hsiang in his commentary - which happens to be the oldest 
commentary now in existence - explains it by saying: Bfbiff)£, Ssto^i^WfsL 
^fbrfnTE, SitoB?E2:ff (P- 276), meaning; ‘Once transmuted into a living being, 
how can a man know the state of affairs which preceded his birth? And while he is not 
yet transmuted and is not yet dead, how can he know the state of affairs that will come 
after death?’ I mention this point because many people follow Kuo Hsiang’s 
interpretation in understanding the present passage. (VI, p. 274). 

13. VI, pp. 267-268. 

14. i.e., the primordial cosmic energy which, as we saw in the last chapter, is thought 
to have existed before the creation of the world. It refers to the cosmogonic state in 
which neither Heaven and Earth nor the Negative and the Positive were yet divided. 
Philosophically it means the metaphysical One in its pure state of Unity. 

15. According to their view, human existence is nothing but a provisional pheno- 


Sufism and Taoism 

menal form composed by different elements (i.e., four basic elements: earth, air, 
water and fire) which by chance have been united in the physical form of a body. 

16. They do not pay any attention to their physical existence. 

17. VI, pp. 259-260. 

18. Hsien chiehf&fff, ‘loosing the tie’, i.e., an absolute freedom. 

19. ibid., p. 261-262. 

20. A noted sword made in the state of Wu (K) in the sixth century B.C. 

IV Beyond This and That 

We have seen in the last pages of the preceding chapter how 
Chuang-tzu obliterates the distinction or opposition between Life 
and Death and brings them back to the original state of ‘undifferen- 
tiation’ . We have spent some time on the subject because it is one of 
Chuang-tzu’ s favorite topics, and also because it discloses to our 
eyes an important aspect of his philosophy. 

Properly speaking, however, and from an ontological point of 
view, Life and Death should not occupy such a privileged place. For 
all so-called ‘opposites’ are not, in Chuang-tzu’ s philosophy, really 
opposed to each other. In fact, nothing, in his view, is opposed to 
anything else, because nothing has a firmly established ‘essence’ in 
its ontological core. In the eye of a man who has ever experienced 
the ‘chaotification’ of things, everything loses its solid contour, 
being deprived of its ‘essential’ foundation. All ontological distinc- 
tions between things become dim, obscure, and confused, if not 
completely destroyed. The distinctions are certainly still there, but 
they are no longer significant, ‘essential’. And ‘opposites’ are no 
longer ‘opposites’ except conceptually. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, 
‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘pious’ and ‘impious’ -all these 
and other conceptual pairs which are sharply distinguished, at the 
level of Reason, and which actually play a leading role in human life, 
are found to be far from being absolute. 

This attitude of Chuang-tzu toward the ‘opposites’ and ‘distinc- 
tions’ which are generally accepted as cultural, esthetic, or ethical 
‘values’, would appear to be neither more nor less than so-called 
relativism. The same is true of Lao-tzu’s attitude. And, in fact, it is a 
relativist view of values. It is of the utmost importance, however, to 
keep in mind that it is not an ordinary sort of relativism as under- 
stood on the empirical or pragmatic level of social life. It is a 
peculiar kind of relativism based on a very peculiar kind of mystical 
intuition: a mystical intuition of the Unity and Multiplicity of exist- 
ence. It is a philosophy of ‘undifferentiation’ which is a natural 
product of a metaphysical experience of Reality, an experience in 


Sufism and Taoism 

which Reality is directly witnessed as it unfolds and diversifies itself 
into myriads of things and then goes back again to the original 

This ‘metaphysical 7 basis of Taoist relativism will be dealt with in 
detail in the following chapter. Here we shall confine ourselves to 
the ‘relativist’ side of this philosophy, and try to pursue Chuang-tzu 
and Lao-tzu as closely as possible as they go on developing their 
ideas on this particular aspect of the problem. 

As I have just pointed out, the attitude of both Chuang-tzu and 
Lao-tzu toward the so-called cultural values would on its surface 
appear to be nothing other than ‘relativism’ in the commonly 
accepted sense of the term. Let us first examine this point hy quoting 
a few appropriate passages from the two books. Even at this pre- 
liminary stage of analysis, we shall clearly observe that this relativ- 
ism is directed against the ‘essentialist’ position of the school of 
Confucius. In the last sentence of the following passage 1 there is an 
explicit reference to the Confucian standpoint. 

If a human being sleeps in a damp place, he will begin to suffer from 
backache, and finally will become half paralyzed. But is this true of a 
mudfish? If (a human being) lives in a tree, he will have to be 
constantly trembling from fear and be frightened. But is this true of a 
monkey? Now which of these three (i.e., man, mudfish and monkey) 
knows the (absolutely) right place to live ? 2 

Men eat beef and pork; deer eat grass; centipedes find snakes delici- 
ous; kites and crows enjoy mice. Of these four which one knows the 
(absolutely) good taste? 

A monkey finds its mate in a monkey; a deer mates with a deer. And 
mudfishes enjoy living with other fishes. Mao Ch’iang and Li Chi 3 are 
regarded as ideally beautiful women by all men. And yet, if fish 
happen to see a beauty like them, they will dive deep in the water; 
birds will fly aloft; and deer will run away in all directions. Of these 
four, which one knows the (absolute) ideal of beauty? 

These considerations lead me to conclude that the boundaries be- 
tween ‘benevolence’ ( jen ) and ‘righteousness’ (i ), 4 and the limits 
between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are (also) extremely uncertain and con- 
fused, so utterly and inextricably confused that we can never know 
how to discriminate (between what is absolutely right and what is 
absolutely wrong, etc.). 

This kind of relativism is also found in the book of Lao-tzu. The 
underlying conception is exactly the same as in the book of 
Chuang-tzu; so also the reason for which he upholds such a view. As 
we shall see later, Lao-tzu, too, looks at the apparent distinctions, 
oppositions and contradictions from the point of view of the 
metaphysical One in which all things lose their sharp edges of 
conceptual discrimination and become blended and harmonized. 


Beyond This and That 

The only difference between Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu in this 
respect is that the latter expresses himself in a very terse, concise, 
and apothegmatic form, while the former likes to develop his 
thought in exuberant imagery. Otherwise, the idea itself is common 
to both of them. In the first of the following quotations from the Tao 
Te Ching, for instance, Lao-tzu implicitly criticizes the cultural 
essentialism of the Confucian school . 5 

Cast off Learning , 6 and there will be no worries. How much in fact, 
difference is there between ‘yes, sir’ and ‘hum!’? Between ‘good’ and 
‘bad’ what distinction is there? ‘Whatever others respect I also must 
respect’, (they say). 

Oh, how far away I am from the common people (who adhere to such 
an idea). For (on such a principle) there will be absolutely no limit to 
the vast field (of petty distinctions). 

People tend to imagine, Lao-tzu says, that things are essentially 
distinguishable from one another, and the Confucians have built up 
an elaborate system of moral values precisely on the notion that 
everything is marked off from others by its own ‘essence’. They 
seem to be convinced that these ‘distinctions’ are all permanent and 
unalterable. In reality, however, they are simply being deceived by 
the external and phenomenal aspects of Being. A man whose eyes 
are not veiled by this kind of deception sees the world of Being as a 
vast and limitless space where things merge into one another. This 
ontological state of things is nothing other than what Chuang-tzu 
calls Chaos. On the cultural level, such a view naturally leads to 
relativism. Lao-tzu describes the latter in the following way : 7 

By the very fact that everybody in the world recognizes ‘beautiful’ as 
‘beautiful’, the idea of ‘ugly’ comes into being. By the very fact that 
all men recognize ‘good’ as‘good’, the idea of ‘bad’ comes into being. 
Exactly in the same way ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’ give birth to 
one another; ‘difficult’ and ‘easy’ complement one another; ‘long’ 
and ‘short’ appear in contrast to one another; ‘high’ and ‘low’ incline 
toward each other; ‘tone’ and ‘voice’ keep harmony with one 
another; ‘before’ and ‘behind’ follow one another. 

Everything, in short, is relative; nothing is absolute. We live in a 
world of relative distinctions and relative antitheses. But the major- 
ity of men do not realize that these are relative. They tend to think 
that a thing which they - or social convention - regard as ‘beautiful’ 
is by essence ‘beautiful’, thus regarding all those things that do not 
conform to a certain norm as ‘ugly’ by essence. By taking such an 
attitude they simply ignore the fact that the distinction between the 
two is merely a matter of viewpoint. 

As I remarked earlier, such equalization of opposites surely is 
‘relativism’ , but it is a relativism based on, or stemming from, a very 


322 Sufism and Taoism 

remarkable intuition of the ontological structure of the world. The 
original intuition is common both to Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. But 
with the latter, it leads to the ‘chaotic’ view of things, the essential 
‘undifferentiation’ of things, which in its dynamic aspect is con- 
ceived as the Transmutation of things. In the case of Lao-tzu, the 
same intuition leads, in its dynamic aspect, to an ontology of 
evolvement and in-volvement, the static aspect of which is the 
relativism we have just discussed. 

As Transmutation ( hua ) is the key- word of Chuang-tzu in this 
section of his philosophy, Return (fan 8 or fu 9 ) is the key-term which 
Lao-tzu chooses as an appropriate expression for his idea. 

On the cosmic significance of the Return as understood by Lao- 
tzu we shall have occasion to talk in a later context. Here we shall 
confine ourselves to considering this concept in so far as it has direct 
relevance to the problem of relativism. 

The Return is a dynamic concept. It refers, in other words, to the 
dynamic aspect of the above-mentioned relativism of Lao-tzu, or 
the dynamic ontological basis on which it stands. He explicates this 
concept in a terse form in the following passage, which may in fact 
be considered an epitome of the whole of his ontology . 10 

Returning is how the Way moves, and being weak is how the Way 
works. The ten thousand things under heaven are born from Being, 
and Being is born from Non-Being. 

It is to be remarked that there is in this passage a covert reference to 
two different meanings or aspects of ‘returning’ which Lao-tzu 
seems to recognize in the ontological structure of all things. The first 
meaning (or aspect) is suggested by the first sentence and the second 
meaning by the second sentence. The first sentence means that 
everything (a) that exists contains in itself a possibility or natural 
tendency to ‘return’, i.e., to be transformed into its opposite ( b ), 
which, of course, again contains the same possibility of ‘returning’ 
to its opposite, namely the original state from which it has come (a). 
Thus all things are constantly in the process of a circular movement, 
from a to b , and then from bio a. This is, Lao-tzu says, the rule of the 
ontological ‘movement’ ( tung), u or the dynamic aspect of Reality. 
And he adds that ‘weakness’ is the way this movement is made by 

The next sentence considers the dynamic structure of Reality as a 
vertical, metaphysical movement from the phenomenal Many to the 
pre-phenomenal One. Starting from the state of multiplicity in 
which all things are actualized and realized, it traces them back to 
their ultimate origin. The ‘ten thousand things under heaven’, i.e., 
all things in the world, come into actual being from the Way at its 
stage of ‘existence’. But the stage of ‘existence’, which is nothing 

Beyond This and That 

other than a stage in the process of self-manifestation of the Way, 
comes into being from the stage of ‘non-existence’, which is the 
abysmal depth of the absolutely unknown-unknowable Way itself. 
It is to be observed that this ‘tracing-back’ of the myriad things to 
‘existence’ and then to ‘non-existence’ is not only a conceptual 
process; it is, for Lao-tzu, primarily a cosmic process. All things 
ontologically ‘return’ to their ultimate source, undergoing on their 
way ‘circular’ transformations among themselves such as have been 
suggested by the first sentence. This cosmic return of all things to the 
ultimate origin will be a subject of discussion in a later chapter. Here 
we are concerned with the ‘horizontal’ Return of things as referred 
to in the first sentence, i.e., the process of reciprocal ‘returning’ 
between a and b. Lao-tzu has a peculiar way of expressing this idea 
as exemplified by the two following passages. 

Misfortune is what good fortune rests upon and good fortune is what 
misfortune lurks in. (The two thus turn into one another indefinitely, 
so that) nobody knows the point where the process comes to an end. 
There seems to be no absolute norm. For what is (considered) just 
‘re-turns’ to unjust, and what is (considered) good ‘re-turns’ to evil. 
Indeed man has long been in perplexity about this . 12 

The nature of things is such that he who goes in front ends by falling 
behind, and he who follows others ultimately finds himself in front of 
others. He who blows upon a thing to make it warm ends by making it 
cold, and he who blows upon a thing to make it cold finally makes it 
warm. He who tries to become strong becomes weak, and he who 
wants to remain weak turns strong. He who is safe falls into danger, 
while he who is in danger ends by becoming safe . 13 

Thus in the view of both Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu, everything in the 
world is relative; nothing is absolutely reliable or stable in this 
sense. As I have indicated before, this ‘relativism’, in the case of 
Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, must be understood in a peculiar sense, 
namely, in the sense that nothing has what is called ‘essence’ or 

All things, on the deeper level of Reality, are ‘essence-less’. The 
world itself is ‘chaotic’ . This is not only true of the external world in 
which we exist, but is equally true of the world within us, the internal 
world of concepts and judgments. This is not hard to understand, 
because whatever judgment we may make on whatever thing we 
choose to talk about in this ‘chaotic’ world, our judgment is bound 
to be relative, one-sided, ambiguous, and unreliable, for the object 
of the judgment is itself ontologically relative. 

The argument which Chuang-tzu puts forward on this point is 
logically very interesting and important. The Warring States period 


Sufism and Taoism 

witnessed a remarkable development of logico-semantical theories 
in China In the days of Chuang-tzu, Confucians and Mohists 
stood sharply opposed to each other, and these two schools were 
together opposed to the Dialecticians 15 (or Sophists) otherwise 
known as the school of Names 16 . Heated debates were being held 
among them about the foundation of human culture, its various 
phenomena, the basis of ethics, the logical structure of thought, etc., 
etc And it was a fashion to conduct discussions of this kind in a 
dialectical form. ‘This is right’ -‘this is wrong’ or ‘this is good’ -‘this 
is bad’, was the general formula by which these people discussed 
their problems. 

Such a situation is simply ridiculous and all these discussions are 
futile from the point of view of a Chuang-tzu for whom Reality itself 
is ‘chaotic’. The objects themselves about which these people 
exchange heated words are essentially unstable and ambiguous. 
The Dialecticians ‘are talking about the distinction between hard 
and “white”, for example, as if these could be hung on different 


Not only that. Those who like to discuss in this way usually 
commit a fatal mistake by confusing ‘having the best of an argu- 
ment’ with ‘being objectively right’, and ‘being cornered in an 
argument’ with ‘being objectively wrong’. In reality, however, vic- 
tory and defeat in a logical dispute in no way determines the right 
and ‘wrong’ of an objective fact. 

Suppose you and I enter into discussion. And suppose you beat me, 
and I cannot beat you. Does this mean that you are ‘right’ and that I 
am ‘wrong’? 

Suppose I beat you, instead, and you cannot beat me. Does this mean 
that I am ‘right’ and you are ‘wrong’? Is it the case that when I am 

‘right’ you are ‘wrong’, and when you are ‘right lam wrong ? Or are 

we both ‘right’ or both ‘wrong’? It is not for me and you to decide. 
(What about asking some other person to judge?) But other people 
are in the same darkness. Whom shall we ask to give a fair judgment? 
Suppose we let someone who agrees with you judge. How could such 
a man give a fair judgment seeing that he shared from the beginning 
the same opinion with you? Suppose we let someone who agrees with 
me judge. How could he give a fair judgment, seeing that he shares 
from the beginning the same opinion with me? 

What if we let someone judge who differs from both you and me . But 
he is from the beginning at variance with both of us. How could such a 
man give a fair judgment? (He would simply give a third opinion.) 
What if we let someone judge who agrees with both of us? But from 
the beginning he shares the same opinion with both of us. How could 
such a man give a fair judgment? (He would simply say that I am 
‘right’, but you also are ‘right’.) 

From these considerations we must conclude that neither you nor 1 


Beyond This and That 


nor the third person can know (where the truth lies). Shall we expect 
a fourth person to appear? 18 

How is this situation to be accounted for? Chuang-tzu answers that 
all this confusion originates in the natural tendency of the Reason to 
think everything in terms of the opposition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. 
And this natural tendency of our Reason is based on, or a product 
of, an essentialist view of Being. The natural Reason is liable to 
think that a thing which is conventionally or subjectively ‘right’ is 
‘right’ essentially, and that a thing which is ‘wrong’ is ‘wrong’ 
essentially. In truth, however, nothing is essentially ‘right’ or 
‘wrong’. So-called ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are all relative matters. 

In accordance with this non-essentialist position, Chuang-tzu 
asserts that the only justifiable attitude for us to take is to know, first 
of all, the relativity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and then to transcend this 
relativism itself into the stage of the ‘equalization’ of all things, a 
stage at which all things are essentially undifferentiated from one 
another, although they are, at a lower stage of reality, relatively 
different and distinct from each other. Such an attitude which is 
peculiar to the ‘true man’ is called by Chuang-tzu t’ien ni 19 
(Heavenly Levelling), t’ien chun 20 (Heavenly Equalization), or man 
yen 21 (No-Limits). 

‘Right’ is not ‘right’, and ‘so’ is not ‘so’. If (what someone considers) 
‘right’ were (absolutely) ‘right’, it would be (absolutely) different 
from what is not ‘right’ and there could be no place for discussion. 
And if ‘so’ were (absolutely) ‘so’, it would be (absolutely) different 
from ‘not-so’ and there could be no place for discussion. 

Thus (in the endless chain of ‘shifting theses’ 22 (i.e., ‘right’ -» ‘not- 
right’ — ► ‘right’ -*■ ‘not-right’ . . . ), (theses and antitheses) depend 
upon one another. And (since this dependence makes the whole 
chain of mutually opposing theses and antitheses relative), we might 
as well regard them as not mutually opposing each other. 

(In the presence of such a situation, the only attitude we can reason- 
ably take) is to harmonize all these (theses and antitheses) in the 
Heavenly Levelling, and to bring (the endless oppositions among the 
existents) back to the state of No-Limits. 23 

‘To bring back the myriad oppositions of things to the state of No- 
Limits’ means to reduce all things that are ‘essentially’ distinguish- 
able from each other to the original state of ‘chaotic’ Unity where 
there are no definite ‘limits’ or boundaries set among the things. On 
its subjective side, it is the position of abandoning all discriminatory 
judgments that one can make on the level of everyday Reason. 
Forgetting about passing judgments, whether implicit or explicit, on 
any thing, one should, Chuang-tzu emphasizes, put oneself in a 
mental state prior to all judgments, prior to all activity of Reason, in 


326 Sufism and Taoism 

which one would see things in their original - or ‘Heavenly’ as he 
says - ‘essence-less’ state. 

But to achieve this is by no means an easy task. It requires the 
active functioning of a particular kind of metaphysical intuition, 
which Chuang-tzu calls ming , 24 ‘illumination’. And this kind of 
illuminative intuition is not for everybody to enjoy. For just as there 
are men who are physically blind and deaf, so there are also men 
who are spiritually blind and deaf. And unfortunately, in the world 
of Spirit the number of blind and deaf is far greater than that of 
those who are capable of seeing and hearing. 

The blind cannot enjoy the sight of beautiful colors and patterns. The 
deaf cannot enjoy the sound of bells and drums. But do you think that 
blindness and deafness are confined to the bodily organs? No, they 
are found also in the domain of knowing. 25 

The structure of the ming, ‘intuition’ , will be studied more closely in 
due course. Before we proceed to this problem, we shall quote one 
more passage in which Chuang-tzu develops his idea regarding the 
relative and conventional nature of ontological ‘distinctions . The 
passage will help to prepare the way for our discussion of the 
‘existentialist’ position Chuang-tzu takes against the ‘essentialist’ 
view of Being . 26 

The nature of the things is such that nothing is unable to be ‘that’ (i.e., 
everything can be- ‘that’) and nothing is unable to be ‘this’ (i.e., 
everything can be ‘this’). 

We usually distinguish between ‘this’ and ‘that’ and think and talk 
about the things around us in terms of this basic opposition. What is 
‘this’ is not ‘that’, and what is ‘that’ is not ‘this’. The relation is 
basically that of ‘I’ and ‘others’, for the term ‘this’ refers to the 
former and the term ‘that’ is used in reference to the latter. 

From the viewpoint of ‘I’, ‘I’ am ‘this’, and everything other than 
‘ f is ‘ that’ . But from the viewpoint of ‘ others’ , the ‘ others’ are ‘ this’ , 
and ‘I’ am ‘that’. In this sense, everything can be said to be both 
‘this’ and ‘that’ . Otherwise expressed, the distinction between ‘this’ 
and ‘that’ is purely relative. 

From the standpoint of ‘that’ (alone) ‘that’ cannot appear (as ‘that ). 

It is only when 1 (i.e., ‘this’) know myself (as ‘this’) that it (i.e., ‘that’) 
comes to be known (as ‘that’). 

‘That’ establishes itself as ‘that’ only when ‘this’ establishes itself 
and looks upon the former as its object, or as something other than 
‘this’. Only when we realize the fundamental relativity of ‘this’ and 
‘that’ can we hope to have a real understanding of the structure of 

Beyond This and That 

Of course the most important point is that this relativity should be 
understood through ‘illumination’. The understanding of this 
ontological relativity by Reason - which is by no means a difficult 
thing to achieve - is useless except as a preparatory stage for an 
‘illuminative’ grasp of the matter. It will be made clear in the 
following chapter that ‘relativity’ does not exhaust the whole of the 
ontological structure of things. ‘Relativity’ is but one aspect of it. 
For, in the view of Chuang-tzu, the ontological structure of things in 
its reality is that ‘chaotic undifferentiation’ to which reference has 
often been made in the foregoing. The ‘chaotic undifferentiation’ is 
something which stands far beyond the grasp of Reason. If, in spite 
of that, Reason persists in trying to understand it in its own way, the 
‘undifferentiation’ comes into its grasp only in the form of ‘relativ- 
ity’ . The ‘relativity’ of things represents, in other words, the original 
ontological ‘undifferentiation’ as brought down to the level of logi- 
cal thinking. In the present chapter we are still on that level. 

Hence it is held: 27 ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’, and ‘this’ depends upon 
‘that’. This doctrine is called the Fang Sheng theory, 28 the theory of 
‘mutual dependence’. 

However (this reciprocal relation between ‘this’ and ‘that’ must be 
understood as a basic principle applicable to all things). Thus, since 
there is ‘birth’ there is ‘death’, and since there is ‘death’ there is 
‘birth’. Likewise, since there is ‘good’ there is ‘not-good’, and since 
there is ‘not-good’ there is ‘good’. 

Chuang-tzu means to say that the real Reality is the One which 
comprehends all these opposites in itself ; that the division of this 
original One into ‘life’ and ‘death’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘right’ and 
‘wrong’ etc., is due to various points of view taken by men. In truth, 
everything in the world is ‘good’ from the point of view of a man 
who takes such a position. And there is nothing that cannot be 
regarded as ‘not-good’ from the point of view of a man who chooses 
to take such a position. The real Reality is something prior to this 
and similar divisions. It is something which is ‘good’ and ‘not-good’ , 
and which is neither ‘good’ nor ‘not-good’. 

Thus it comes about that the ‘sacred man’ 29 does not base himself 
(upon any of these oppositions), but illuminates (everything) in the 
light of Heaven. 30 

Certainly, this (attitude of the ‘sacred man') is also an attitude of a 
man who bases himself upon (what he considers) ‘right’ . But (since it 
is not the kind of ‘right’ which is opposed to ‘wrong’, but is an 
absolute, transcendental Right which comprises in itself all opposi- 
tions and contradictions as they are), ‘this’ is here the same as ‘that’, 
and ‘that’ is the same as ‘this’. (It is a position which comprehends 
and transcends both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, so that here) ‘that’ unifies 
‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but ‘this’ also unifies ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. 


Sufism and Taoism 

(Viewed from such a standpoint) is there still a distinction between 
•that’ and ‘this’? Or is there neither ‘that’ nor ‘this’ any longer ? 31 
This stage at which each ‘that’ and ‘this’ has lost its companion to 
stand opposed to - this stage is to be considered the Hinge of the 

Way. ... . . .. . 

The hinge of a door can begin to function infinitely only when it is 
fitted into the middle of the socket. (In the same way, the Hinge of the 
Way can respond infinitely and freely to endlessly changing situations 
of the phenomenal world only when it is placed properly in the 
middle of the absolute One which transcends all phenomenal opposi- 
tions.) (In such a state) the ‘right’ is one uniform endlessness; the 
‘wrong’ too is one uniform endlessness. 

This is why I assert that nothing can be better than ‘illumination . 

The absolute One is of course the Way which pervades the whole 
world of Being; rather it is the whole world of Being. As such it 
transcends all distinctions and oppositions. Thus from the point of 
view of the Way, there can be no distinction between ‘true’ and 
‘false’. But can human language properly cope with such a situa- 
tion? No, at least not as long as language is used in the way it is 
actually used. ‘Language’, Chuang-tzu says, ‘is different from the 
blowing of wind, for he who speaks is supposed to have a meaning to 
convey .’ 32 However, language as it is actually used does not seem to 
convey any real meaning, for those people, particularly the Dialec- 
ticians, who are engaged in discussing ‘this being right and that 
being wrong, or ‘this’ being good and ‘that being bad etc., are 
‘simply talking about objects which have no definitely fixed 
contents’ . 

Are they really saying something (meaningful)? Are they rather 
saying nothing ? 33 They think that their speech is different from the 
chirpings of fledglings. But is there any difference? Or is there not 

any difference at all? . , 4 , 

Where indeed, is the Way hidden (for those people) that there 
should be ‘true’ and ‘false’? Where is Language (in the true sense) 
hidden that there should be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? 

(The fact is that) the Way is concealed by petty virtues , 34 and Lan- 
guage is concealed by vainglories . 35 This is why we have the right 
‘wrong’ discussions of the Confucians and the Mohists, the one party 
regarding as ‘right’ what the other party regards as ‘wrong’, and the 
one regarding as ‘wrong’ what the other regards as right . 

If we want to affirm (on a higher level) what both parties regard as 
‘wrong’, and to deny what they regard as ‘right’, we have no better 
means than ‘illumination ’. 36 

Thus we see ourselves brought back again to the problem of illumi- 
nation’ . The passages here quoted have made it already clear that 
the ‘illumination’ represents an ‘absolute’ standpoint which tran- 
scends all ‘relative’ standpoints. It is a state of mind which is above 


Beyond This and That 

and beyond the distinctions between ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘I’ and ‘you’. 
But how can one attain to such a spiritual height, if in fact it really 
exists? What is the content and structure of this experience? These 
are the main problems that will occupy us in the following two 


1. Chuang-tzu , II, p. 93. 

2. i.e., there is no absolutely’ proper place; for each being, the place in which it lives 
customarily is the right place, but the latter is ‘right’ only in a relative sense. 

3. Two women famous for their supreme beauty. 

4. That these concepts, {z jen and M i, represented two of the most typical moral 
values for Confucius and his school was pointed out in Chap. I. 

5. Tao Te Ching, XX. 

6. By Learning ( hsiieh ^) is meant the study of the meticulous rules of conduct and 
behavior - concerning, for instance, on what occasions and to whom one should use 
the formal and polite expression ‘yes, sir' and when and to whom one should use the 
informal expression ‘hum!’ - the kind of learning which was so strongly advocated by 
the Confucian school under the name of Ceremonies (li Ǥ). 

7. op. cit., II. 

8. K. 

9. ® (tt) fu(-kuei), lit. ‘returning’ - ‘going-back’. 

10. op. cit., XL. 

11 . ». 

12. op. cit., LVIII. 

13. ibid., XXIX. This part of Chap. XXIX is regarded by Kao Heng (op. cit.) as an 

independent chapter. He remarks in addition that the passage is typical of ‘Lao-tzu’s 
relativism’ (gTifflffl&til), P- 69. The last sentence of the passage quoted in its 
original form is 1 , which may be translated as ‘a thing which one wants to 

crush (is not crushed), and a thing which one wants to destroy (is not destroyed).’ But 
in the Ho Shang edition we find ft instead of ® (MTS 3b§/ti!j), which, as Yii 

Yiieh (^fB r^T^j) remarks, is probably the right reading. 

14. The followers of Mo-tzu (3rT). 

15. pien che 

16. ming chia %M.. 


Sufism and Taoism 

Beyond This and That 

32. II, p. 63. 

33. See above, Note (31). 


17. Chuang-tzu , XII, p. 427, quote by Fung Yu Lang, op. cit., I, p. 192. The reference 
is to the famous thesis put forward by the Dialectician Kung Sung Lung (&&8ST), 
that a ‘hard white stone’ is in reality two things: a hard stone and a white stone, 
because ‘hard’ and ‘white’ are two entirely different attributes. The quoted sentence 
may also be translated: The distinction between ‘hard’ and' white’ is clearly visible as 
if they were hung on the celestial sphere. 

18. II, p. 107. 

19. IS, Mi, means usually ‘boundary’, ‘limit’, ‘division’. But here I follow the 

interpretation of Lu Shu Chih (fit 1~F1S '■ TOO, s S?cf§iii-l) and 

Pan KuSffi(quoted by Lu Te Ming in ) who makes it synonymous with 

20. Aft. 

2 1 . gffr . The lexical meaning of this expression is difficult to ascertain . In translating 
it as ‘without limits’ I am simply following an old commentator (m,H quoted by 
IstSM in his r£T^S§j) who says rftffi, fcffitii j, (p. 109). The same word is used in Bk. 
XXVII. And in Bk. XVII it appears in the form of RKfanyen which obviously is the 
same asgftf(a commentator spells itSffi) because the passage reads: ‘From the point 
of view of the Way, what should we consider “precious” and what should we consider 

22. ItS Cf. Kuo Hsiang’s Commentary (p. 109): r , 
fRTfEWffllE, SStlrTfSfTftilj; and Chia Shih Fu (^i£3£): 

23. Chuang-tzu, II, p. 108. 

24. . The term literally means ‘bright’ or ‘luminous’ . We may compare it with the 
Islamic notion of ma'rifah ‘gnosis’ as opposed to, and technically distinguished from, 
‘ilm ‘(rational) knowledge’. 

25. I, p. 30. 

26. The passage is taken from II, p. 66. I shall divide it into a number of smaller 
sections and quote them one by one, each followed by a brief examination. 

27. by the Dialectician Hui Shih. 

28. more exactly the ‘theory of fang sheng fang ssu (A£7j 5E2.IS:)> held by 

Hui Shih, meaning literally: the theory of ‘life’ giving birth to ‘death’ and ‘death 
giving birth to ‘life’. See Chuang-tzu, XXXIII. For this particular meaning of the 
word fang 7i , see the Shuo Wen (ȣ): T H, fang means (originally) two 

ships placed side by side with each other’ . 

29. sheng jen 5?A, which is synonymous with ‘true man’ or ‘divine man’, i.e., the 
Perfect Man. The real meaning of the important word sheng has been elucidated 
earlier in its shamanic context; see Chapter II. The expression sheng jen is more often 
used by Lao-tzu than by Chuang-tzu. 

30. t’ien X, meaning the great Way of Nature, the absolute standpoint of Being 
itself, which is, so to speak, a viewpoint transcending all viewpoints. 

34. The ‘petty virtues’/]^ -or more literally, ‘small acquirements’ -refer to the five 
cardinal virtues of the Confucians - Ch’eng Hsiian Ying (fig;£A fjfETifeiKLl )• 

35. i.e., the natural tendency of the human mind toward showing-off, which mani- 
fests itself typically in the form of discussions and debates. 

36. op. cit., II, p. 63. 

3 1 . This is a peculiar expression which Chuang-tzu uses very often when he wants to 
deny something emphatically. 

The Birth of a New Ego 


V The Birth of a New Ego 

We have seen in what precedes how futile and absurd, in the view of 
Chuang-tzu, is the ordinary pattern of thinking typified by the 
this-is-‘ right’ -and-that-is-‘ wrong’ kind of discussion. What is the 
source of all these futile verbalizations? Chuang-tzu thinks that it is 
to be found in the mistaken conviction of man about himself, 
namely, that he himself has (or is) an ‘ego’, a self-subsistent entity 
endowed with an absolute ontological independence. Man tends to 
forget that the ‘ego’ which he believes to be so independent and 
absolute is in reality something essentially relative and dependent. 
Relative to what? Relative to ‘you’ and ‘them’ and all other things 
that exist around himself. Dependent upon what? Dependent upon 
Something absolutely superior to himself, Something which 
Chuang-tzu calls the Creator, or more literally, the Maker-of- 
things . 1 Chuang-tzu describes this situation through a parable of 
‘Shadow and Penumbra ’. 2 

Penumbra 1 once said to Shadow: ‘I notice you sometimes walking, but 
next moment you are standing still. Sometimes I notice you sitting, 
but next moment you are standing up. Why are you so fickle and 

Shadow replied: It seems to me that (in acting like this) I am simply 
dependent upon something (i.e., the body). But that upon which I 
depend seems to be acting as it does in dependency upon something 
else (i.e., the Creator). So all my activities in their dependency seem 
to be the same as the movements of the scales of a snake or the wings 
of a cicada . 4 

How should I know, then, why I act in this way, and why I do not act 
in that way? 

Chuang-tzu deprives the ‘ego’ at a stroke of its seeming self- 
subsistence and self-sufficiency. But such a view goes naturally 
against the everyday belief and conviction of man about himself. 
For according to the everyday view of things the ‘ego’ is the very 
basis and the core of man’s existence, without which he would lose 
his personality, his personal unity, and be nothing. The ‘ego is the 
point of co-ordination, the point of synthesis, at which all the 
disparate elements of his personality, whether physical or mental, 

become united. The ‘ego’ thus understood is called by Chuang-tzu 
the ‘mind ’. 5 


I think it proper to introduce at this point a pair of key terms which 
seem to have played a decisive role in the formation of the main 

I lines of thought of Chuang-tzu concerning the nature of the mind: 

V tso ch’ih 6 lit. ‘sitting-galloping’ and tso wang 1 lit. ‘sitting-forgetting’ . 

The first of them, tso ch’ih, refers to the situation in which the 
mind of an ordinary person finds itself, in constant movement, going 
this way at this moment and that way at the next, in response to 
myriad impressions coming from outside to attract its attention and 
to rouse its curiosity, never ceasing, to stop and rest for a moment, 
even when the body is quietly seated. The body may be sitting still 
but the mind is running around. It is the human mind in such a state 
that the word hsin (Mind) designates in this context. It is the exact 
opposite of the mind in a state of calm peaceful concentration. 

It is easy to understand conceptually this opposition of the two 
states of the mind, one ‘galloping around’ and the other ‘sitting still 
and void’. But it is extremely difficult for ordinary men to free 
themselves actually from the dominance of the former and to realize 
in themselves the latter. But in truth, Chuang-tzu teaches, man 
himself is responsible for allowing the Mind to exercise such a 
tyrannical sway over him, for the tyranny of the Mind is nothing else 
than the tyranny of the ‘ego’ - that false ‘ego’ which, as we have seen 
above, he creates for himself as the ontological center of his person- 
ality. Chuang-tzu uses a characteristic expression for this basic 
situation of man: shih hsin or ‘making the Mind one’s own 
teacher’ . 8 

The ‘ego’, thus understood, is man’s own creation. But man clings 
to it, as if it were something objective, even absolute. He can never 
imagine himself existing without it, and so he cannot abandon it for 
a moment; thus he makes out of his Mind his venerated ‘teacher’. 

This Mind, on a more intellectual level, appears as Reason, the 
faculty of discursive thinking and reasoning. Sometimes Chuang- 
tzu calls itch’ eng hsin or ‘finished mind ’. 9 The ‘finished mind’ means 
the mind which has taken on a definitely fixed form, the mind in a 
state of coagulation, so to speak. It is the Reason by whose guidance 
- here again we come across the expression: ‘making the Mind the 
teacher’ - man discriminates between things and passes judgments 
on them, saying ‘this is right’ and ‘that is wrong’, etc., and goes on 
falling ever deeper into the limitless swamp of absurdities. 

Everybody follows his own ‘finished mind’ and venerates it as his own 
teacher. In this respect we might say no one lacks a teacher. Those 
who know the reality of the unceasingly changing phenomena and 
accept (this cosmic law of Transmutation) as their standard (of 



Sufism and Taoism 

judgment) are not the only people who have their teachers. (In the 
above-mentioned sense) even an idiot has his own teacher. It is 
impossible for a man to insist on the distinction between ‘right’ and 
‘wrong’ without having a ‘finished mind’. This is as impossible as a 
man departing (from a northern country) to-day and arriving in the 
country of Yiieh (in the southern limit of China) yesterday ! 10 

Thus we see that all the pseudo-problems concerning the ‘right’ and 
‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’, whose real nature was disclosed in the 
preceding chapter, arise from man’s exercising his own ‘finished 
mind’. The Mind, according to Chuang-tzu, is the source and origin 
of all human follies. 

This idea of the Mind is shared by Lao-tzu, although his approach is 
a little different from Chuang-tzu’ s. That the idea itself is basically 
the same will immediately be perceived if one reads carefully, for 
example, Ch. XLIX of the Tao Te Ching. Interestingly enough, 
Lao-tzu in this passage uses the term ch’ang hsin ," i.e., ‘constant or 
unchangeable mind’. The term reminds us of Chaung-tzu s ch eng 
hsin ‘finished mind’. By ch’ang hsin Lao-tzu designates a rigidly 
fixed state of mind deprived of all natural flexibility, or as he likes to 
say, the state of the mind that has lost the natural ‘softness’ of an 
infant. As the passage quoted shows, this unnatural rigidity of the 
mind is typically manifested in the distinguishing and discriminating 
activity of the mind which perceives everywhere ‘good’ and ‘bad’, 
‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and regards these categories as something objec- 
tive and absolute. 

For Lao-tzu, it is not simply a matter of one’s becoming partial, 
prejudiced, and bigoted. In his view the exercise of this function of 
the mind affects the very core of human existence. It is a question of 
the existential crisis of man. Man stands in a woeful predicament 
because he is - almost by nature, one would say - so made that he 
directs the activity of his mind toward distinguishing and dis- 
criminating things from one another. 

The ‘sacred man’ has no rigidly fixed mind of his own. He makes the 
minds of all people his mind . 12 (His principle is represented by the 
dictum): ‘Those who are good I treat as good. But even those who are 
not good I also treat as good. (Such an attitude I take) because the 
original nature of man is goodness. Those who are faithful I treat as 
faithful. But even those who are not faithful I also treat as faithful. 
(Such an attitude I take) because the original nature of man is 

Thus the ‘sacred man’, while he lives in this world, keeps his mind 
wide open and ‘chaotifies ’ 13 his own mind toward all. 

The ordinary men strain their eyes and ears (in order to distinguish 
between things). The ‘sacred man’, on the contrary, keeps his eyes 
and ears (free) like an infant . 14 

The Birth of a New Ego 

Lao-tzu sometimes uses the word chih 1S , ‘knowing’ , to designate the 
discriminating activity of the mind here in question. But caution is 
needed in understanding this word, because for Lao-tzu it is not the 
act of ‘knowing’ itself that is blameful; its blamefulness is con- 
ditioned by the particular way in which ‘knowing’ is exercised and 
by the particular objects toward which it is directed. 

The kind of ‘knowing’ which is wrong in the eyes of Lao-tzu is the 
same distinguishing and discriminating activity of intelligence as the 
one which we have seen is so bitterly denounced by Chuang-tzu. 
Unlike Chuang-tzu, however, who develops this idea on a logical 
level as a problem of dialectics, taking his examples from the discus- 
sions on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as he observes them among the Dialecti- 
cians of his day, Lao-tzu is prone to consider the disastrous effects of 
this type of ‘knowing’ on a more practical level. He draws attention 
to the evaluational attitude which is the most immediate result of 
the ‘distinguishing’ activity of the mind. Here the this-is-‘ right’ - 
and- that-is-‘ wrong’ is not a logical problem. It is a matter of practi- 
cal evaluation. And as such it is directly connected with the concrete 
facts of life. ‘Knowing’ understood in this sense, is denounced 
because it disturbs the minds of the people in an unnecessary and 
wrong way. And the disturbance of the mind by the perception of 
values, positive and negative, is regarded by Lao-tzu as wrong and 
detrimental to human existence because it tempts it away from its 
real nature, and ultimately from the Way itself. In the following 
passage , 16 the word chih, ‘knowing’, is evidently used in this sense. 

If (the ruler) does not hold the (so-called) wise men in high esteem, 
the people will (naturally) be kept away from vain emulation. If (the 
ruler) does not value goods that are hard to obtain, the people will be 
kept away from committing theft. If (the ruler) does not display 
things which are liable to excite desires, the minds of the people will 
be kept undisturbed. 

Therefore, the ‘sacred man’ in governing the people empties their 
minds , 17 while making their bellies full; weakens their ambitions 18 
while rendering their bones strong. 

In this way, he keeps his people always in the state of no-knowledge 19 
and no-desire, so that the so-called ‘knowers ’ 20 might find no occa- 
sion to interfere. 

The baneful influence of the discriminating activity of the Mind is so 
powerful that even a modicum of it is liable at any moment to make 
man deviate from the Way. 

If I happen to have even a modicum of ‘knowing’, I would be in grave 
danger of going astray even if I am actually walking on the main road 
(i.e., the Way). The main road is level and safe, but men tend to 
choose narrow by-ways . 21 


Sufism and Taoism 

However, it is not ‘knowing’ itself that is so baneful; the quality of 
‘knowing’ depends upon the particular objects on which it is exer- 
cised. The ‘knowing’ , when its usual tendency of turning toward the 
outside and seeking after external objects is curbed and brought 
back toward the inside, transforms itself into the highest form of 
intuition, ‘illumination’ ( ming ). 

He who knows others (i.e., external objects) is a ‘clever’ man, but he 

who knows himself is an ‘illumined’ man . 22 

It is significant that here we come across exactly the same word, 
ming ‘illumination’, which we encountered in the Chuang-tzu. It is 
also very significant that in the passage just quoted the ‘illumina- 
tion’ is directly connected with man’s knowledge of himself . 23 It 
evidently refers to the immediate and intuitive knowledge of the 
Way. It is described as man’s ‘self-knowledge’ or ‘self-knowing’, 
because the immediate intuitive grasp of the Way is only obtainable 
through man’s ‘turning into himself’. 

Certainly, according to the view of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, the 
Way is all pervading. It is everywhere in the world; the world itself is 
a self- manifestation of the Way. In this sense, even ‘external’ things 
are actually manifesting the Way, each in its own way and own form. 
But man alone in the whole world of Being is self-conscious. That is 
to say, man alone is in a position to grasp the Way from inside. He 
can be conscious of himself as a manifestation of the Way. He can 
feel and touch within himself the palpitating life of the Absolute as it 
is actively working there. He can /n-tuit the Way. But he is unable to 
m-tuit it in external objects, because he cannot go into the ‘inside’ of 
the things and experience their manifestation of the Way as his own 
subjective state. At least the first subjective personal encounter 
with the Way must be made within himself. 

For this purpose the centrifugal tendency of the mind must be 
checked and turned to the opposite direction; it must be made 
centripetal. This drastic turning of direction is described by Lao-tzu 
as ‘closing’ up all the openings and doors’ of the body. By obstruct- 
ing all the possible outlets for the centrifugal activity of the mind, 
man goes down deep into his own mind until he reaches the very 
existential core of himself. 

This existential core of himself which he finds in the depth of his 
mind may not be the Way perse, because after all it is an individual- 
ized form of the Way. But, on the other hand, there is no real 
distinction or discrepancy between the two. Lao-tzu expresses this 
state of affairs symbolically by calling the Way per se the Mother, 
and the Way in its individualized form the Child. He who knows the 
Child, knows by that very knowledge the Mother herself. 

In the passage which I am going to quote , 24 the importance of the 


The Birth of a New Ego 

‘closing up of all the openings and doors’ is emphasized as the sole 
means by which man can come to know the Child, and through the 
Child, the Mother. And the ultimate state thus attained is referred 
to by the term ‘illumination’. It may be pointed out that the Child 
( tzu ) 25 which in this understanding represents an individualized 
duplicate of the Mother (mu ), 26 is nothing other than what Lao-tzu 
calls elsewhere Virtue (te) - or perhaps more strictly, an individual 
embodiment of the Way having as its existential core the creative 
and vital force, which is the Way itself as distributed among the ‘ten 
thousand things’ . As we shall see later, this creative and vital force 
of each individual, existent as an individual determination of the 
Way, is called by Lao-tzu ‘Virtue ’. 27 

All things under Heaven have a Beginning which is to be regarded as 
the Mother of all things . 28 

If you know the ‘ mother’ , you thereby know her ‘ child’ . And if, after 
having known the ‘child’ , you go back to the Mother and hold fast to 
Her, you will never fall into a mistake till the very end of your life. 

Block the openings, shut the doors (i.e., stop the normal functioning 
of the sense organs and the usual centrifugal activity of the Mind), 
and all through your life you (i.e., your spiritual energy) will not be 

If, on the contrary, you keep the openings wide open, and go on in- 
creasing their activities till the end of your life, you will not be saved. 

To be able to perceive the minutest thing (i.e., the supra-sensible 
thing, which is the Child of the Way within yourself) is properly to be 
called Illumination. To hold on to what is soft and flexible (i.e., 
abandoning the rigidity of the Mind enslaved by the ‘essential’ dis- 
tinctions among things and accepting ‘softly’ all things in their real 
state of mutual transformations) is properly to be called strength. 

If, using your external light, you go back to your internal Illumina- 
tion, you will never bring misfortune upon yourself. Such an (ulti- 
mate) state is what is to be called ‘stepping into the eternally real’ 29 

The ‘closing up all openings and doors’ means, as I have indicated 
above, stopping the functioning of all the organs of sense perception 
in the first place, and then purifying the Mind of physical and 
material desires. This is made clear by our comparing the passage 
just quoted with XII which reads: 

The five colors (i.e., the primary colors: white, black, blue, red and 
yellow) make man’s eyes blind. The five musical notes make man’s 
ears deaf. The five flavors (i.e., sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter) 
make man’s taste dull. (Games like) racing and hunting make man’s 
mind run mad. Goods that are hard to obtain impede man’s right 

Therefore the ‘sacred man' concentrates on the belly (i.e., endeavors 
to develop his inner core of existence) and does not care for the eye 



Sufism and Taoism 

(i.e., does not follow the dictates of his senses). Verily he abandons 
the latter and chooses the former. 

The ‘sacred man’ cares for the belly and does not care for the eye, 
because he is aware that the centrifugal activity of the Mind does 
nothing other than lead him away from the Way. The Way is there in 
his own ‘inside’ in the most concrete and palpable form. The further 
one goes toward ‘outside’ , the less he is in touch with the Absolute. 
What one should try to do is to ‘stay at home’ and not to go 

Without going out of the door, one can know everything under 
Heaven (i.e., the reality of all things). Even without peeping out of 
the window, one can see the working of Heaven. The further one 
goes out, the less one knows. 

Therefore the ‘sacred man’ knows without going out. He has a clear 
view of everything 30 without looking. He accomplishes everything 
without acting . 31 

The passages which have now been quoted from the Tao Te Ching 
concern the epistemological aspect of the problem of the Way; the 
problem, namely, of how and in what way man can ‘intuit’ the 
Absolute. The answer given by Lao-tzu is, as we have seen, that the 
only possible way for man to take in order to achieve this aim is to 
obstruct totally the centrifugal tendency of his own mind and to 
replace it by a centripetal activity leading ultimately to 

Lao-tzu, however, is not so much concerned with the epis- 
temological process itself by which man cultivates such an ‘inner 
eye’ as with the result and effect of this kind of intuition. Indeed, he 
usually starts his argument precisely from the point at which such a 
process reached completion. Two things are his main concern. One 
is the practical and visible effect produced by the illuminative 
intuition on the basic attitude and behavior of man. How does the 
‘sacred man’ act in the ordinary situations of social life? That is one 
of his primary problems. This problem will be dealt with in a later 
chapter devoted to a discussion of the concept of the Perfect Man. 

The second of Lao-tzu’s main problems is the metaphysical struc- 
ture of the world of Being, with the Way as the very source and basis 
of all things. Here again the epistemological aspect of the problem is 
either almost totally discarded or simply hinted at in an extremely 
vague way. Lao-tzu is more interested to describe the ontological 
process by which the Way as the absolutely Unknown-Unknowable 
goes on making itself gradually visible and determined until finally it 
reaches the stage of the infinite Multiplicity of the phenomenal 
world. He also refers to the backward movement of all things, by 
which they ‘return’ to the original state of absolute Unity. 

The Birth of a New Ego 

What is remarkable about this is that all this description of the 
ontological process is made from the standpoint of a man who has 
already experienced ‘illumination’, with the eye of a man who 
knows perfectly the secret of Being. Chuang-tzu is different from 
Lao-tzu in this respect. He is vitally interested in the process which 
itself precedes the final stage of ‘illumination’ and by which the 
latter is reached. Chuang-tzu even tries to describe, or at least to 
indicate by means of symbolic descriptions, the experiential content 
of ‘illumination’ which he knows is by its very nature ineffable. The 
rest of the present chapter and the next will be concerned 
specifically with this aspect of the problem, which we might call the 
epistemological or subjective side of the Way-experience. 

At the outset of this chapter, I drew attention to two cardinal 
concepts relating to the subjective side of the Way-experience, 
which stand diametrically opposed to each other: tso ch’ih ‘sitting- 
galloping’ and tso wang ‘sitting-forgetting’. In the preceding pages 
we have been examining mainly the structure of the former concept. 
Now it is time we turned to the latter concept. 

A man in the state of ‘sitting-forgetting’ looks so strange and so 
different from ordinary men that he is easily recognizable as such by 
an outsider-observer. In Bk II of his Book, Chuang-tzu gives a 
typical description of such a man. The man here described is Nan 
Kuo Tzu Ch’i, or Tzu Ch’i of the Southern Quarter. He is said to 
have been a great Sage of Ch’u , 32 living in hermitic seclusion in the 
‘southern quarter’. For Chuang-tzu he was surely a personification 
of the very concept of the Perfect Man. 

Once Tzu Ch’i of the Southern Quarter sat leaning against a 
tabouret. Gazing upward at the sky, he was breathing deeply and 
gently. Completely oblivious of his bodily existence, he seemed to 
have lost all consciousness of ‘associates’ (i.e., oppositions of ‘I’ and 
‘things’, or ‘ego’ and the ‘others’). 

Yen Ch’eng Tzu Yu (one of his disciples), who was standing in his 
presence in attendance, asked him, ‘What has happened to you, 
Master? Is it at all possible that the body should be made like a 
withered tree and the mind should be made like dead ashes? The 
Master who is now leaning against the tabouret is no longer the 
Master whom I used to see leaning against the tabouret in the past!’ 

Tzu Ch’i replied, ‘It is good indeed that you ask that question , 33 Yen! 

(I look different from what I have been) because I have now lost 
myself . 34 But are you able to understand (the real meaning of) this? 

Following this introductory remark, the great Master goes on to 
describe for the bewildered disciple the state of ‘having lost the ego’ , 
telling him what is actually experienced in that state. As a result, we 
have the very famous vision of the Cosmic Wind, one of the most 


Sufism and Taoism 

beautiful and forceful passages in the whole book of Chuang-tzu. 
The passage will be given in translation in the following chapter. 
Here we have only to note that the Master’s words: ‘I have now lost 
myself’, refer to nothing other than the state of ‘sitting-forgetting’ 
or ‘sitting in oblivion’ as opposed to the ‘sitting-galloping’. 

But what exactly is ‘sitting in oblivion’? How can one experience 
it at all? This is something extremely difficult - or more properly we 
should say, almost absolutely impossible - to explain in words. 
Chuang-tzu, however, tries to do so. 

In Bk VI he gives his own definition of ‘sitting in oblivion’. The 
passage reads as follows. 

What is the meaning of ‘sitting in oblivion’? 

It means that all the members of the body become dissolved, and the 
activities of the ears and eyes (i.e., the activities of all the sense 
organs) become abolished, so that the ifian makes himself free from 
both form and mind (i.e., both bodily and mental ‘self-identity’), and 
becomes united and unified with the All-Pervader (i.e., the Way 
which ‘pervades’ all). This is what I call ‘sitting in oblivion ’. 35 

Externally, or physically, all the parts of the body become ‘dissol- 
ved’ and forgotten. That is to say, the consciousness of the bodily 
‘ego’ is made to disappear. Internally, all mental activities are 
‘abolished’. That is to say, there no longer remains the conscious- 
ness of the inner ‘ego’ as the center and all-unifying principle of 
man’s mental activity. The result of this total ‘forgetting’ of the 
inside and outside of the ‘I’ is called by Chuang-tzu hsu , 36 the Void, 
or a spiritual-metaphysical state in which there is nothing what- 
soever to obstruct the all-pervading activity of the Way. 

The word ‘Void’ must not be understood in this context in a 
purely negative sense. It does have a positive meaning. And in its 
positive aspect, the Void must be connected with the concept of the 
All-Pervader which appears in the passage just quoted. 

I have translated the Chinese expressions t’ung, lit. ‘great perva- 
sion’, as the All-Pervader following the interpretation given by 
Ch’eng Hsiian Ying, who identifies ta t’ung with ta tao, the ‘great 
Way’, and says: ‘to t’ung is the same as ta tao; since the Way 
pervades all things and enlivens them, it is in this sense entitled to be 
called All-Pervader’. 37 This interpretation seems to be right, but it 
must be supplemented by an understanding of another aspect of the 
matter, namely, that in the experience of the spiritual state here in 
question, all things in their infinite multiplicity interpenetrate each 
3ther freely, without any obstruction, and that the man who has lost 
his ‘ego’ rediscovers in this experience his ‘ego’ in a totally different 
form, reborn as what we might call the Universal, Cosmic, or 
Transcendental Ego which transforms itself freely into all things 
that are transforming themselves into each other. 


The Birth of a New Ego 

Such must be the real implication of the use of the particular 
expression ta t’ung in place of the more usual word tao, the Way. 
The point is brought to light very clearly by Kuo Hsiang who 
explains this passage by saying: ‘in the “inside” the man has no 
consciousness of his own bodily existence; in the “outside” he has 
no awareness of the existence of Heaven and Earth. It is only in such 
a state that he becomes completely identified with the (cosmic) 
process of Change (i.e., “transformations”) itself without there 
being any obstruction at all. Once in such a state, there can be 
nothing he does not freely pervade.’ 38 

Chuang-tzu himself expresses the same idea in a far more laconic 

Being unified, you have no liking. Being transmuted, you have no 

fixity . 39 

In the light of the explanation that has been given in the preceding, 
the meaning of this laconic expression can easily be clarified as 
follows. Being completely unified and identified with the Way itself, 
the man can have no likes and dislikes. The man in such a spiritual 
state transcends the ordinary distinctions between ‘right’ and 
‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. And since he is now identical with the 
Way, and since the Way is constantly manifesting itself in myriad 
forms of Being, the man himself is ‘being transmuted’ from one 
thing to another, without there being any obstruction, as if he were 
moving around in the great Void. He is not actually in the ‘void’, 
because there are things throbbing with all-pervading Life, appear- 
ing and disappearing in infinitely variegated forms. The point is, 
however, that in this metaphysical Void these things no longer 
present any obstacles to his absolute freedom. For he himself is, in 
this state, completely identical with every one of these things, 
participating from within in the cosmic flux of Transmutation; or 
rather he is the cosmic Transmutation itself. This is what is meant by 
the expression: ‘you have no fixity’ 40 ‘No fixity’ means boundless 
flexibility and absolute freedom. 

It will be clear from what has preceded that the hsu is both the 
metaphysical Void and the spiritual Void. In truth, this very distinc- 
tion between ‘metaphysical’ and ‘spiritual’ is in this context some- 
thing artificial, because the state in question refers to a total and 
complete identification of man with the All-Pervader. Theoreti- 
cally, however, there is some point in making such a distinction. For 
when the question is raised on a more practical level as to what 
concretely one should do in order to become so completely 
identified with the Way, we have to have recourse to the idea of 
making the mind ‘void’. Only when one has succeeded in making 


Sufism and Taoism 

the mind completely ‘void’, does one find oneself in the very midst 
of the metaphysical Void. This part of Chuang-tzu’s teaching takes 
on the form of practical instruction regarding the proper method by 
which man can hope to attain to such a state. This method is called 
by him ‘fasting’ or the purification of the Mind. 

The purification of the Mind constitutes the pivotal point in the 
development of man from the state of an ‘ordinary’ man to that of 
the Perfect Man. An ‘ordinary’ man can never become a Perfect 
Man unless he passes through this turning point. The significance of 
this experience will be clear if one remembers what we have seen 
above concerning Chuang-tzu’s characteristic expression: ‘making 
the Mind one’s own teacher ’. 41 Man naturally tends to cling to his 
Mind - and Reason - and thinks and acts according to its dictates. 
Whatever the Mind tells him to believe is absolutely true, and 
whatever it commands him to do is absolutely good. In other words, 
man venerates his own ‘ego’ as his ‘teacher’. 

In the light of this observation, the ‘purification of the Mind’ 
means precisely that man should abolish this habit of the ‘venera- 
tion’ of the Mind, that he should cast away his own ‘ego’. And that 
will mark the first step toward his being transformed into a Perfect 

In an imaginary conversation which Chuang-tzu fabricates with a 
view to endorsing his thesis, Confucius - who is here ironically made 
into a Taoist sage - teaches his disciple Yen Hui how to proceed in 
order to succeed in purifying the Mind. 

In this dialogue, Yen Hui is represented as a zealous disciple who 
has desperately struggled to know the right way to become a Perfect 
Man, but in vain. As the final resort, he turns to Confucius and 
humbly asks for instruction. The following is the passage . 42 

Yen Hui: I cannot proceed any further. May I venture to ask 

you to tell me the proper way? 

Confucius: Fast, first. Then I will teach you. Do you think it easy 

(to see the Truth) while maintaining your Mind? If 
anybody does think it easy, the vast and bright 
Heaven will not approve of him. 

The word translated here as ‘fast’, chai, 43 means the act of ‘fasting’ 
which man practises in the period immediately preceding sacrificial 
ceremonies in order to put himself into the state of religious ‘purity’ . 
In the present context, Confucius uses the word not in this original 
religious sense, but figuratively in the sense of the ‘fasting of the 
Mind’, that is, the ‘purification of the Mind’. Yen Hui, however, 
does not understand this, and takes the word in its usual sense. He 
imagines that Confucius means by the word the observance of the 

The Birth of a New Ego 


ritual fasting which concerns eating and drinking. Hence the follow- 
ing ridiculous reply he gives to the Master: 

Yen Hui: My family is poor, so much so that I have neither 

drunk liquor nor eaten garlic and onions for the past 
several months. Cannot this be considered fasting? 

Confucius: What you are talking about is the fasting as a ritual 

proceeding. That is not the fasting of the Mind. 

Yen Hui: May I ask what you mean by the fasting of the Mind? 

Confucius: Bring all the activity of the Mind to a point of union. 

Do not listen with your ears, but listen with the Mind 
(thus concentrated). 

(Then proceed further and) stop listening with the 
Mind; listen with the Spirit (c/z’f). 44 
The ear (or more generally, sense perception) is 
confined to listening 45 (i.e., each sense grasps only its 
proper objects in a physical way). 

The Mind is confined to (forming concepts) corres- 
ponding to their external objects. 46 The Spirit, how- 
ever, is itself ‘void’ (having no definite proper objects 
of its own), and goes on transforming limitlessly in 
accordance with the (Transmutation of) things (as 
they come and go). The Way in its entirety comes 
only into the ‘void’ (i.e., the ‘ego-less’ Mind). Making 
the Mind ‘void’ (in this way) is what 1 mean by the 
‘fasting of the Mind’. 

As I pointed out before, hsii, ‘void’, is a key term of the philosophy 
of Chuang-tzu. It represents in this context the subjective attitude 
of man corresponding to the very structure of the Way which is itself 
a Void. This latter point is very much emphasized by Lao-tzu, as we 
shall see in detail in a later chapter which will be devoted to a 
discussion of the metaphysics of the Way. Here we are still mainly 
concerned with the subjective aspect of the matter. The main idea is 
that when a man ‘sits in oblivion’ with his mind completely ‘void’, 
into this ego-less ‘void’ all things come exactly as they are, as they 
come and go in the cosmic process of Transmutation. In such a state, 
his mind is comparable to a clear mirror which reflects everything 
without the slightest distortion or disfigurement. 

All this is of course a matter which must be directly experienced; 
a mere conceptual understanding is of little help. Yen Hui whose 
mind has already been fully ripened - in the anecdote we are now 
reading - for this kind of personal transformation, becomes sud- 
denly ‘illumined’ by the teaching of his Master, and makes the 
following observation about himself. 

Yen Hui: Before Hui (i.e., I) received this instruction, Hui was 

really nothing but Hui (i.e., ‘I’ have been my small 
‘ego’, nothing else). However, now that I have 


Sufism and Taoism 

received this instruction, I have realized that from the 
very beginning there never was (an ‘ego’ called) Hui. 

Is this state worthy to be considered the ‘void’ (which 
you have just spoken of)? 

Confucius: So it is, indeed! 

Then Confucius contrasts this state with the state of ‘sitting- 
galloping’, and goes on to describe the former by comparing it to a 
firmly closed empty room which mysteriously and calmly illumines 
itself with a white light of its own. 47 

Look into that closed room and see how its empty ‘interior’ produces 
bright whiteness. All blessings of the world come in to reside in that 
stillness . 48 

If, on the contrary, (your Mind) does not stand still, you are in the 
state of what I would call ‘sitting-galloping’. 

But if a man turns his ears and eyes toward the ‘interior’, and puts his 
Mind and Reason in the ‘exterior’ (i.e., nullifies the normal function- 
ing of the Mind and Reason), even gods and spirits come to reside 
freely (in his ego-less ‘interior’) not to speak of men. This is the 
Transmutation of ten thousand things . 49 

The last sentence represents one of the cardinal points of Chuang- 
tzu’s metaphysics. The peculiar meaning of the key term hua has 
been explained above. What is important here to note is that in the 
passage just quoted, the hua , Transmutation, is evidently described 
as a subjective state of man, as something that occurs in his 
‘interior’. Rather, his ‘interior’ is the Transmutation of the ten 
thousand things, that is, of all the phenomenal things and events of 
the world. The man in the state of perfect ‘sitting in oblivion’ does 
experience subjectively, as his personal experience, the Transmuta- 
tion of all things. 

The whole matter may be reformulated more theoretically in terms 
of the process of the spiritual development of man toward 

In ordinary human experience, the constant flux and reflux of ) 

infinitely changing phenomena are in the position of the Lord. They 
positively act upon man, influence him, push him around, and bind f 

him up. In such a situation man is a servant or slave. His mind 
becomes torn asunder and runs in all directions in pursuit of 4 

chameleonic forms of things and events. 

Once man frees himself from this bondage and transcends the 
common pattern of experience, the scene before his eyes takes on a I 

completely different appearance. The kaleidoscopic view is still § 

there. The things and events still continue their changes and trans- $ 

formations as before. The only essential difference between the two 

The Birth of a New Ego 


stages is that in the second all these things and events that go on 
appearing and disappearing are calmly reflected in the polished 
mirror of the man’s ‘interior’ . The man himself is no longer involved 
in the hustle and bustle of incessantly changing phenomena. 

The man at this stage is a calm observer of things, and his mind is 
like a polished mirror. He accepts everything as it comes into his 
‘interior’, and sees it off, unperturbed, as it goes out of sight. There 
is for him nothing to be rejected, but there is nothing wilfully to be 
pursued either. He is, in short, beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and 

A step further, and he reaches the stage of ‘undifferentiation’, 
where, as we saw earlier, all things become ‘chaotified’ . On this level 
there still are things. But these things show no limits and borderlines 
separating them ‘essentially’ from one another. This is the stage of 
the cosmic Transmutation. It goes without saying that in its subjec- 
tive aspect, the Transmutation represents a spiritual stage of the 
man himself. 

As a result of the ‘fasting of the Mind’ , the man is now completely 
‘ego-less’ . And since he is ‘ego-less’ he is one with the ‘ten thousand 
things’; he becomes the ‘ten thousand things’. And he himself goes 
on changing with the infinite change of all things. He is no longer a 
calm ‘observer’ of the changing things. He is the subject of the 
Transmutation. A complete and perfect harmony is here realized 
beween the ‘interior’ and the ‘exterior’; there is no distinction 
between them. 

Borrowing the terminology of Ibn ‘Arab! we might say that the 
man on this high level of spiritual development is subjectively 
placed in the position of the Unity of Existence ( wahdah al-wujud), 
and personally experiences the whole world of Being in that posi- 
tion. The situation is described by Chuang-tzu in the following 
way: 51 

Dying and being alive, being subsistent and perishing, getting into a 
predicament and being in the ascendant, being poor and being rich, 
being clever and being incompetent, being disgraced and being hon- 
ored, being hungry and thirsty, suffering from cold and heat - all 
these are but constant changes of (phenomenal) things, and results of 
the incessant working of Fate. 

All these things go on replacing one another before our own eyes, but 
no one by his Intellect can trace them back to their real origin. 
However, these changes are not powerful enough to disturb (the man 
who ‘sits in oblivion’ because he is completely one with the Transmu- 
tation itself), nor can they intrude into the ‘innermost treasury ’ 52 (of 
such a man). 

On the contrary, he maintains (his ‘innermost treasury’) in a peaceful 
harmony with (all these changes) so that he becomes one with them 
without obstruction, and never loses his spiritual delight. 



Sufism and Taoism 

Day and night, without ceasing, he enjoys being in spring-tide with all 
things. Mingling with (the infinitely changing things on a supra- 
sensible level of existence) he goes on producing within his ‘interior’ 
the ‘time ’ 53 (of the world). 

Such a state I would call the perfection (i.e., perfect actualization) of 
the human potentiality . 54 

When a man attains to this height of spiritual development, he fully 
deserves the title of Perfect Man. This, however, is not the last and 
ultimate stage of ‘sitting in oblivion’. There is a still higher stage 
beyond. That is the stage of ‘no more Death, no more Life’. 
Chuang-tzu sometimes calls it the ‘extreme limit ( chihf 55 of know- 
ledge ( chih ). 56 At this last stage, the man is completely unified not 
with the ever changing ‘ten thousand things’ - as was the case when 
he was in the previous stage - but with the ‘Mystery of Mysteries ’, 57 
the ultimate metaphysical state of the Absolute, at which the latter 
has not yet come down to the sphere of universal Transmutation. 
The man is here so completely one with the Way that he has not 
even the consciousness of being one with the Way. The Way at this 
stage is not present as the Way in the consciousness of the man. And 
this is the case because there is no ‘consciousness’ at all anywhere, 
not even a trace of it. The ‘oblivion’ is complete. And the actualiza- 
tion of such a perfect ‘oblivion’ is to be accounted for in reference to 
the metaphysical fact that the ultimate Absolute, the Way, is in its 
absolute absoluteness Something which one cannot call even ‘some- 
thing’ . Hence the usual custom in oriental philosophies of referring 
to the Absolute as Nothing. 

The stages of the above-described spiritual development of ‘sitting 
in oblivion’ are variously discussed by Chuang-tzu in several places 
of his book. Sometimes he takes an ascending course, and some- 
times a descending course. The former corresponds to the real 
process by which the mind of a man gradually proceeds toward 
spiritual perfection. A typical example of this type of description is 
found in a passage 58 which claims to reproduce a conversation 
between a certain Nan Po Tzu K’uei and a Perfect Man (or 
Woman?) called Nii Yii. In this passage, Chuang-tzu gives a 
description of the stages which are traversed by a man who is born 
with a special potentiality to be a Perfect Man until he really 
reaches the last stage. The description is very interesting when it is 
considered as a Taoist counterpart to the Islamic fana' or 

The conversation starts from Nan Po Tzu K’uei’ s astonishment at 
the complexion of old Nii Yii, which, as he observes, is like that of a 

The Birth of a New Ego 

Nan Po Tzu You are old in years, Master, and yet your com- 
K’ u ei: plexion is like that of a child. Why? 

Nii Yii: (This is because) I have come to know the Way. 

Nan Po: Is it possible for me to learn the Way? 

Nii Yii: No. How could it be possible? You are not the right 

kind of man to do so. 

You know Pu Liang I. He had (from the beginning) 
the natural potentiality to be a ‘sacred man’, but he 
had not yet acquired the Way, whereas I had the Way 
but lacked the ‘potentiality ’. 59 I wanted to give him 
guidance to see if, by any chance, he could become a 
‘sacred man’ . Even if I should fail to achieve my goal, 
it was, (I thought), easy for a man in possession of the 
Way to communicate it to a man in possession of the 
potentiality of a ‘sacred man’. 

Thus I persistently taught him. After three days, he 
learnt how to put the world outside his Mind. 

The ‘putting the world outside the Mind’ i.e., forgetting the exist- 
ence of the world, marks the first stage. The ‘world’ being some- 
thing objective - and therefore relatively far from the Mind - is the 
easiest thing for man to erase from his consciousness. 

After he had put the world outside himself, I con- 
tinued persistently to instruct him. And in seven days 
he learnt how to put the things outside his Mind. 

The ‘putting the things outside the Mind’ represents the second 
stage. Forgetting the existence of the world was not so difficult, but 
‘things’ which are more intimately related with man resist being 
erased from the consciousness. As Kuo Hsiang remarks: ‘The things 
are needed in daily life. So they are extremely close to the ego. This 
is why they are so difficult to put outside the Mind ’. 60 And Ch’eng 
Hsiian Ying : 61 ‘The states of the whole world are foreign and far 
removed from us; so it is easy for us to forget them. The things and 
utensils that actually serve us in our everyday life are familiar to us; 
so it is difficult for us to forget them’ . 

By forgetting the familiar things that surround us and are con- 
nected with us in various ways in daily life, the external world 
completely disappears from our consciousness. 

After he had put things outside his Mind, I still con- 
tinued to instruct him. And in nine days he learnt how 
to put Life outside the Mind. 

This is the third stage. It consists in the man’s forgetting Life, that is 
to say, erasing from his consciousness the fact of his own Life, i.e., 
his own personal existence. This is the stage of dropping the ‘ego’. 
As a result, the world, both in its external and internal aspects. 



Sufism and Taoism 

disappears from the consciousness. This stage is immediately fol- 
lowed by the next which is the sudden coming of the dawn of 

After he had put Life outside his Mind, (his inner eye 
was opened just as) the first light of dawn breaks 
through (the darkness of night). 

Once this ‘illumination’ is achieved, there are no more stages to 
come. Or should we say, there are stages to come, but they do not 
come successively; all of them become actualized simultaneously. If 
they are to be considered ‘stages’, they must be described as hori- 
zontal stages which occur at once and all together the moment the 
inner eye is opened by the penetrating ray of spiritual daybreak. 
The first of such stages is ‘perceiving the absolute Oneness’. 

The moment the day dawned, he saw the Oneness. 

This is the moment when all things and T become absolutely one. 
There is no more opposition of subject and object - the subject that 
‘sees’ and the object ‘seen’ being completely unified - nor is there 
any distinction between ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘existence’ and ‘non- 
existence’. ‘I’ and the world are brought back to their absolute 
original unity. 

And after having seen the Oneness, there was (in his 
consciousness) neither past nor present. 

At the stage of the absolute Oneness, there is no more conscious- 
ness of the distinction between ‘past’ and ‘present’. There is no 
more consciousness of ‘time’. We may describe this situation in a 
different way by saying that the man is now in the Eternal Now. And 
since there is no more consciousness of ever-flowing ‘time’ , the man 
is in the state of ‘no Death and no Life’. 

After having nullified past and present, he was able to 
enter the state of ‘no Death and no Life’. 

The state of ‘no Death and no Life’ can be nothing other than the 
state of the Absolute itself. The man at this stage is situated in the 
very midst of the Way, being identified and unified with it. He is 
beyond Life and Death, because the Way with which he is one is 
beyond Life and Death. 

The state of the Way or the Absolute, however, is not simply 
being beyond Life and Death. As is clearly shown by the very 
epistemological process by which man finally attains to it, this state 
is not sheer ‘nothing-ness’ in the purely negative sense. It is rather 
the ultimate metaphysical state, the absolute Unity, to which the 
dispersion of the ontological Multiplicity is brought back. It is a 

The Birth of a New Ego 

Unity formed by the unification of ‘ten thousand things’, a Unity 
in which all the things are existent, reduced to the state of 

There is ‘no Death and no Life’ here. That is to say, it is a state of 
complete Tranquillity and Stillness. There is no more even a trace of 
the noise and fuss of the world of sensible existence. And yet the 
Stillness is not the stillness of Death. There is no more movement 
observable. But it is not a state of non-movement in a purely 
negative sense. It is rather a dynamic non-movement, full of inter- 
nal ontological tensions, and concealing within itself infinite pos- 
sibilities of movement and action. 

Thus it is, in both of the aspects just mentioned, a coincidentia 
oppositorum. The Absolute, in this view, is Something which goes 
on realizing and actualizing ‘ten thousand things’ in their myriad 
forms and transforming them in a limitless process of Transmuta- 
tion, and yet at the same time keeping all these things in their 
supra-temporal and supra-spatial Unity. It is a Unity which is itself a 
Multiplicity. It is Stillness which is itself Ebullition. 

In the end of the passage Chuang-tzu refers to this aspect of the 
Way in the following words. 

That which kills Life does not die . 62 That which brings to Life every- 
thing that lives does not live . 63 By its very nature it sends off every- 
thing, and welcomes everything. There is nothing that it does not 
destroy. There is nothing that it does not perfect. It is, in this aspect, 
called Commotion-Tranquillity . 64 The name Commotion- 
Tranquillity refers to the fact that it (i.e., the Way) sets (all things) in 
turmoil and agitation and then leads them to Tranquillity. 

We must keep in mind that at this highest stage of spirituality, the 
man is completely unified and identified with the Way. Since, how- 
ever, the Way is nothing other than Commotion-Tranquillity, the 
man who is in complete union with the Way, goes through this 
cosmic process of the absolute Unity being diversified in turmoil 
and agitation into ‘ten thousand things’, and the latter going back 
again to the original state of Tranquillity . The ontology of Taoism is 
an ontology which is based upon such an experience. It would be 
natural for us to imagine that the view of Being in the spiritual eyes 
of a Taoist sage will be of an essentially different nature and struc- 
ture from that of an Aristotle, for example, who founds his 
philosophical edifice upon the ordinary ontological experience of an 
average man looking at the world around him at the level of sound 
and solid common sense. The most natural standpoint of 
philosophers of the latter kind is essentialism. In ancient China, the 
essentialist standpoint is represented by Confucius and his school. 
Both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu take a determined position against it. 


350 Sufism and Taoism The Birth of a New Ego 

The next chapter will be devoted to an elucidation of this particular 15 


K 16. Tao Te Ching, III. 


1. tsao wuche see VII, p. 280). The name designates the Way in its ‘personal’ 

aspect. This aspect of the Way is referred to also by the name Great Lord, ta shih 
The word Heaven, t’ien ^ is also sometimes used with the same meaning. More 
details will be given later when we discuss the concept of ‘determinism’ (Chap. IX). 

2. II, pp. 110-111. 

3. is explained by Kuo Hsiang as r , ‘faint darkness surrounding the 
shadow’ . 

4. The scales of a snake and the wings of a cicada have no independence in their 
movements. On the contrary all their movements are dictated by the snake and the 
cicada respectively. 

5. hsin <{j. 

6. The word appears in an important passage (IV, p. 150) which will be given 
in translation presently. 


8. mb , IV, p. 145. 

9. J&'L , II, p. 56. My interpretation of this word is based on that given by Kuo 

Hsiang and Ch’eng Hsiian Ying. The latter says: , 

mzunmmmm, (P- 61). Some commen- 

tators (like Lin Hsi I , for instance, in his famous sfET p $ ) interpret the word in 
the opposite sense, as the inborn, naturally given mind, which is the mind in its 
celestial purity. But this latter interpretation does not, I think, do justice to the basic 
thought of Chuang-tzu on this problem. 

10. ibid. 

11. The word ch'ang is an ambiguous term in the Tao Te Ching, because 
Lao-tzu uses it in two diametrically opposed meanings. Sometimes - as is the case 
with the usage of the word in this passage - it means ‘unflexible’, ‘rigidly fixed’, which 
is the worst possible state of things in the philosophy of Lao-tzu. Sometimes - 
particularly in many of the passages of primary importance, as we shall see later - it is 
used in the sense of ‘never-changing’, ‘eternal’, and ‘absolute’. 

12. Having no ‘fixed mind’ of his own, he accepts everything, whether ‘good’ or 
‘bad’; rather, he does not distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. 

13. hun fflt, a characteristic word, whose meaning has been explained in an earlier 
passage in connection with Chuang-tzu’ s concept of the ‘chaotification’ of things. 

17. hsin ijj, the discriminating activity of the intellect, the natural tendency of the 
Mind toward gaining ‘knowledge’. 

18. chih ^ , that aspect of the Mind, which manifests itself in insatiably desiring 
more and more. 

19. wu chih fata. 

20. chih che, ill£ lit. ‘knowing men’, those men who claim to know the reality of 
things; who, therefore, are convinced that they are capable of giving the best advice 
on every important matter of human life. 

21. LIII. 

22. XXXIII. 

23. We are reminded of the Islamic adage: Man ‘arafa najsa-hu ‘arafa rabba-hu'He 
who knows himself knows his Lord’, which, as we saw in the first Part of this study, 
plays an important role in the philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi. 

24. LII. 

25. T. 

26. m. 

27. That the word te gSj, here translated as Virtue, is one of the most important of all 
the key terms of Lao-tzu, will be seen from the very fact that the Book itself is known 
by the title Tao Te Ching, i.e., the ‘Canonical Book of the Way and the Virtue’. 

28. ‘All things under Heaven’ represent the Multiplicity of the phenomenal world, 
while the Beginning is the Unity as their ultimate ontological origin and source. 

29. hsich’angQI?;. For the meaning of the word ch ’ang , see above, note (1 1). The 
word hsi means‘step into’, ‘enter’, here in the mystical sense of the ‘inner’ grasp of a 
thing, m-tuition. The word is used in XXVII in a very characteristic combination: hsi 
ming, ‘stepping into illumination’. 

30. £. The word is here the same as both having the same pronunciation. As 

quoted by Han Fei Tsii ( ) we see actually used in this passage ( )• 

31. XLVII. 

32. Jg . On the relevance of his being a man of Ch’u to the whole topic of the present 
study, see above, Chap. I. 

33. i.e., I am glad that you are keen enough to notice the difference. 

34. i.e., I have lost my ‘ego’ and have stepped into the state in which there is no more 
distinction between ‘ego’ and ‘things’ . Lin Hsi I (fa#j®) says in his commentary: As 

14. XLIX. 



Sufism and Taoism 

long as there is'ego’ there are'things’. But when I lose my ‘ego’, there is no I’. And 
since there is no ‘I’, there are no ‘objects’. (BrTnJS; ad loc.) 

35. VI, p. 284. 

36. dt; cf. Ch’eng Hsuan Ying: [ftfe-mtu J, p. 285. 

37. r*a»*aiib. p- 285 - 

38. p. 285. 

39. ibid. 

40. The word used here for ‘fixity’ is ch’ang 'ft; , whose double meaning has been 
explained above; see notes 11 and 29. 

41. See above, Chap. IV. 

42. IV, pp. 146-148. 

43. IS. 

44. ^C. The word has already been explained before, Ch. II, Note 19. It is a 
proto-material and formless cosmic ‘reality’ which pervades the whole world of 
Being and which constitutes the ontological core of every single thing, whether 
animate or in-animate. Man is, of course, no exception to this. Thus man, on the level 
of the ch’i is homogeneous with all things as well as with the universe itself. Man 
cannot ‘listen with the ch’i,’ unless he has been completely unified with the universe. 
The ‘ego’ which listens, i.e., perceives, with the ch’i is no longer an ordinary epis- 
temological ‘subject’; it is the Cosmic Ego. 

45. The text reads: rigikS^J, ‘listening stops with the ears’, which gives but a poor 

meaning. Following Yu Yiieh (fifcHi) I read r^ihRi8£ (cf.£5fe* adloc.). 

46. i.e., the Mind is confined to elaborating the images received from the sense 
organs and fabricating out of them concepts that correspond to external objects 
which are fixed once for all in terms of ‘essences’ . It cannot identify itself, with infinite 
flexibility, with each of the infinitely varying phenomenal forms of ‘reality’. 

47. IV, p. 150. 

48. The repetition of the word ikinr^jj&ihikjis a little difficult to account for. Y u 
Yiieh simply disposes of the second as a scribal error on the ground that the 
sentence as quoted in other books does not have it. ( riLikiS;#!, 

However, the second 

lb can very well be understood also in the sense of ‘stillness’ or ‘no-motion’ as 
I have done following Ch’eng Hsuan Ying who says: 


49. ‘The hua of ten thousand things’. 

50. In doing this, I shall strictly follow Chuang-tzu’ s own description which he gives 
in Bk. II, p. 74. The passage itself will be given in translation at the outset of the 
following chapter. 

The Birth of a New Ego 

51. V, p. 212. 

52. ling /M,gjfrthe most secret part of the heart which is the central locus of all 
spiritual activity. 

53. i.e. he goes on experiencing within himself, without being perturbed, the alter- 
nation of the four seasons, which is the ‘time’ of all phenomenal things. That is to say 
he is completely one with all things which are in the incessant process of 

54. ts’ai ch’iian one of the key terms of Chuang-tzu. It means the natural human 

ability brought to the highest degree of perfection. 

55 . m. 

56. to II, p. 74, r&toi3f#Sj. 

57. Hsuan chih yu hsuan r£;£X£ j, the expression is from the Tao Te Ching. It 
denotes the Way, but with a peculiar connotation which will be explained in the 
chapter concerning the concept of Way. 

58. VI, pp. 252-253. 

59. i.e., I had not the ‘ability’ or ‘potentiality’ to become a Perfect Man; I had 
‘actually’ the Way from the very beginning. 

60. rfci-, WBJiJgJ, p. 253. 

61. mzvoms., p- 254 . 

62. The Way brings everything existent to naught. But if it brings everything to 
naught and death, it must itself be something beyond Death. 

63. Since the Way brings into existence everything that exists, it must itself be 
something that transcends Life, i.e., Becoming. 

64. Ying ning }f It is one of the key terms of Chuang-tzu. According to Ch’eng 

Hsiian Ying, ying means ‘commotion’, ‘agitation’, and ning ‘tranquillity’, ‘stillness’ 
(rasw&m, p. 255). 

VI Against Essentialism 

Toward the end of the preceding chapter I pointed out the fact that 
in the Chuang-tzu, the stages of the ‘sitting in oblivion’ are traced in 
two opposite directions: ascending and descending. The first con- 
sists in starting from the lowest stage and going up stage by stage 
toward the ultimate and highest one. A typical example of this kind 
of description has just been given. 

The second, the descending course, is the reverse of the first. It 
starts from the highest stage and comes down to the lowest. As a 
proper introduction to the main topic of the present chapter, we 
shall begin by giving in translation a passage 1 from the Chuang-tzu 
in which the stages are described in this way. In this passage, 
Chuang-tzu, instead of speaking of ‘sitting in oblivion’, divides 
human knowledge of Reality into four classes which constitute 
among themselves a chain of successive degrees. These degrees are 
the epistemological stages corresponding to the ontological stages 
which Lao-tzu in his Tao Te Ching distinguishes in the process by 
which all things in the world of Being issue forth continuously from 
the absolute Unity of the Way. 

What is the ultimate limit of Knowledge? It is the stage represented 
by the view that nothing has ever existed from the very beginning. 
This is the furthest limit (of Knowledge), to which nothing more can 
be added. 

As we saw in the previous chapter, this is the ultimate stage to which 
man attains at the end of ‘sitting in oblivion’. Here the man is so 
completely unified with the Way and so perfectly identified with the 
absolute Reality, that the Way or the Reality is not even felt to be 
such. This is the stage of Void and Nothing-ness in the sense that has 
been explained above. 

About this stage Kuo Hsiang says: 2 ‘The man at this stage has 
completely forgotten Heaven and Earth, has put all existent things 
out of his mind. In the outside, he does not perceive the existence of 
the whole universe; in the inside, he has lost all consciousness of his 
own existence. Being limitlessly “void” , he is obstructed by nothing. 

Against Essentialism 355 

He goes on changing as the things themselves go on changing, and 
there is nothing to which he does not correspond.’ 

Next is the stage at which there is the consciousness of ‘things’ being 
existent. But (in this consciousness) ‘boundaries’ between them have 
never existed from the very beginning. 

At this second stage, the man becomes conscious of the Way which 
contains all things in a state of pure potentiality. The Way will 
diversify itself at the following stage into ‘ten thousand things’. But 
here there are no ‘boundaries’ yet between them. The ‘things’ are 
still an undivided Whole composed of a limitless number of poten- 
tially heterogeneous elements. They are still an even plane, a 
Chaos, where things have not yet received ‘essential’ distinctions. 

Next (i.e., the third) is the stage at which ‘boundaries’ are recognized 
(among the things). However, there is as yet absolutely no distinction 
made between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. 

Here the Chaos begins to disclose the definite forms of the things 
which it contains within itself. All things show their own demarca- 
tions, and each thing clearly marks its own ‘boundary’ by which it 
distinguishes itself from others. This is the stage of pure ‘essences’. 
The original Unity divides itself, and is diversified into Multiplicity, 
and the Absolute manifests itself as numberless ‘relative’ existents. 
As a result, the Reality which has previously been beyond the ken of 
human cognition comes for the first time into the limits of its grasp. 

And yet, even at this stage, the distinction is not made between 
‘right’ and ‘wrong’ . This indicates that at this third stage we are still 
in touch with the Way in its original integrity, although, to be sure, 
the contact with the Way is already indirect, because it is made 
through the veil of the ‘essences’. We may recall the myth of the 
Emperor Chaos (Hun Tun), which we read in Chapter II, who died 
as soon as his friends bored holes in his ‘featureless’ visage. In the 
light of the present passage, there is in this myth an oversim- 
plification. For Chaos does not ‘die’ simply by ‘holes’ (i.e., ‘essen- 
tial’ distinctions) being made in it. The true death of the Chaos 
occurs at the next stage. 

As soon as, however, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ make their clear appear- 
ance, the Way becomes damaged. And as soon as the Way is thus 
damaged, Love is born. 

With the appearance of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, Chaos loses its natural 
vitality and becomes fossilized as ‘essential forms’ stiff and inflex- 
ible as corpses. As Wang Hsien Ch’ien says: ‘When “right” and 
“wrong” are recognized, the “chaotic” integrity of the Way is 
immediately injured’. 3 

356 Sufism and Taoism 

And no sooner this happens than Love is born. The birth of Love 
symbolizes the activity of such human emotions as love and hate, 
like and dislike. This is the last and lowest stage of Knowledge. 

Of course there is another aspect to the problem. The Way is here 
said to die with the appearance of human emotions like love and hate. 
But this is so only when one considers the situation in refence to the 
original ‘chaotic’ integrity, i.e., the original ‘undifferentiation’ of 
the Absolute. Otherwise, everything is a particular manifestation 
of the Way itself. And as such even a fossilized ‘essence’ is nothing 
other than a ‘self-determination’ of the Absolute. This aspect of the 
matter, however, is irrelevant to our present topic. 

As I remarked before several times - and it is particularly important 
to recall it once again for the right understanding of the philosophi- 
cal position Chuang-tzu takes against ‘essentialism’ - the descrip- 
tion just given of the four stages is not an abstract theory; it is a 
description of an experiential fact. It is a phenomenological descrip- 
tion of the experience of ekstasis. In the passage which has just been 
quoted, the process of ekstasis is described in a descending order. 
That is to say, Chuang-tzu describes the ‘return’ of consciousness. 
He starts from the highest stage of contemplation at which the 
‘oblivion’ has been completed, and goes down step by step until he 
reaches the stage of normal consciousness. 

What is to be kept in mind in connection with this problem is that 
the whole process of ekstasis , whether considered in a descending or 
ascending order, is composed of two aspects which exactly corres- 
pond to each other. One is the subjective aspect, which we might 
call ‘epistemological’, and the other is the objective, or ‘metaphysi- 
cal’ aspect. 

Take, for example, the highest stage. On its subjective side, it is, 
as I have just said, a stage at which the contemplative in actual 
contemplation has consummated the ekstasis. He is now in com- 
plete ‘oblivion’ of everything, the world and himself included. This 
would naturally mean that he is in the state of Nothing-ness, 
because he is conscious of nothing, because there is no ‘conscious- 
ness’. And this subjective Nothing-ness corresponds to the objec- 
tive Nothing-ness of the Way. For the Way, too, is in its original 
absolute purity Nothing-ness, a state ‘where nothing has ever 
existed from the very beginning’ , that is, a metaphysical state where 
nothing whatsoever is distinguishable as^n existent. 

From such a state of perfect Void, subjective and objective, the 
contemplative starts coming back toward the daily state of mind. 
There begins to stir something in himself. Consciousness awakes in 
him to find ‘things’ existent. The consciousness, however, is still at 
this stage a dim and subdued light. It is not yet the glaring brilliance 

Against Essentialism 357 

of full daylight. It is the crepuscule of consciousness, a twilight in 
which all things are only indistinctly and confusedly observable. 

Such a description of the situation might strike one as a negative 
evaluation. The state of consciousness at this stage is described as 
being a dim light merely because the description is made from the 
point of view of the ‘ normal’ consciousness of an ordinary mind. For 
the latter, the light of the ecstatic consciousness looks dim and 
indistinct because it does not distinguish and discriminate things 
from each other. In reality, however, such indistinctiveness is, for a 
Chuang-tzu, Reality as it really is. 

And since the real state of Reality is itself ‘dim’ and ‘indistinct’, 
the consciousness must of necessity be correspondingly ‘dim’, and 
‘indistinct’. Only with such a dim light can Reality in its integrity be 
illumined. The glaring and dazzling light of normal consciousness 
does cast a strong spotlight on this or that particular object. But by 
concentrating the light on the particular object, it makes all the rest 
of the world sink into darkness. Referring to this point Chuang-tzu 
remarks: 4 

Therefore, the diffused and indistinct Light is what is aimed at by the 
‘sacred man’. He does not, however, use this Light (in order to 
illumine particular things), but lends it to all things universally. This is 
what is called ‘illumination’. 

The phrase here translated as ‘diffused and indistinct Light’ 5 means 
a kind of light of which one cannot be certain as to whether it exists 
or not; a light which, instead of being concentrated upon this or that 
particular object, is ‘diffused’ and pervades all. It is not a glaring, 
dazzling light. It is a dim, indistinct light, neither bright nor dark. In 
reality, however, it is the Universal Light which illumines every- 
thing as it really is. 

Chuang-tzu calls this kind of spiritual Light also the ‘shaded 
Light’ (pao kuang). 6 The word pao means ‘to cover’, ‘to conceal 
within’. As Ch’eng Hsiian Ying explains: ‘(The mind of the “sacred 
man”) forgets (to distinguish between things) and yet illumines all. 
And as it illumines them, it forgets them. That is why it shades and 
obscures its light, yet becomes ever more brilliant.’ 

The corresponding ‘objective’ side of this stage is ontologically the 
most important of all stages for Chuang-tzu. For this precisely is the 
stage of ‘chaotification’. In the subdued and diffused Light of the 
consciousness of the contemplative, the ‘ten thousand things’ loom 
up as if through the mist. They appear dim and indistinct because 
there are no ‘boundaries’, i.e., definite ‘essences’ or ‘quiddities’, to 
differentiate them one from the other. 

I say that this is ontologically the most important stage for 

358 Sufism and Taoism 

Chuang-tzu, because the higher stage, that of the Absolute in its 
absoluteness, is properly speaking beyond all thinking and reason- 
ing, 7 while the lower one is the stage of ‘essences’ or ‘quiddities’, 
where all things appear to the consciousness distinctly separated 
from each other through their ‘boundaries’ . And Chuang-tzu fights 
against the view that this latter stage does represent Reality as it 
really is. 

Thus we see that the stage of ‘chaotification’, at which all things 
are observed in their original 4 undifferentiation’ , that is, beyond and 
apart from their ‘essences’, constitutes the pivotal point of Chuang- 
tzu’ s metaphysics. We might call this metaphysics ‘existentialism’, 
taking the word ‘existence’ ( existentia ) in the same sense as wujud in 
the metaphysical system of Ibn ‘Arabi. 

From the very outset I have been emphasizing implicitly as well as 
explicitly the ‘existentialist’ attitude of Chuang-tzu. I think I have 
made it sufficiently clear by now that its real meaning becomes 
understandable only when we relate it to the second stage (from 
above) of the ‘sitting in oblivion’ . It is a philosophical position based 
on the vision of Chaos. In this respect it stands opposed to the 
position taken by ‘essentialism’ which is based on a vision of Reality 
peculiar to, and typical of the epistemological-ontological stage 
where the ‘ten thousand things’ appear, each with a clearly marked 
‘boundary’ of its own. In terms of the process of ‘sitting in oblivion’ - 
the Return process from the complete ekstasis back toward the 
‘normal’ world of common sense -the ‘essentialist’ position belongs 
to the third stage explained above. 

Thus in the framework of such an experience, ‘existentialism’ 
represents a vision of Reality which is a stage higher than ‘essential- 
ism’. It is important to note that the latter is regarded as the third 
stage in the Return process of the ecstatic contemplation only as 
long as it is considered within this particular framework. In reality, 
however, the contemplative, when he comes down to this stage and 
becomes conscious of the things with clear ‘boundaries’, he is actu- 
ally already on a par with any ordinary man who knows nothing 
about the experience of ekstasis. His view of Being at this particular 
level is nothing unusual from the standpoint of common sense. On 
the contrary, it is a view of Being common to, and shared by, all men 
who are at all endowed with a ‘sound’ and ‘normal’ mind. ‘Essential- 
ism’, in other words, is the typical ontology of common sense. 

This statement, however, should not be understood as implying 
that, for a Chuang-tzu or a Lao-tzu, ‘essentialism’ is a wrong and 
mistaken view of Being, and that it distorts and disfigures the real 
structure of things. For ‘essentialism’ does represent and corres- 
pond to a certain definite stage in the evolving process of the 

Against Essentialism 359 

Absolute itself. Besides, on its subjective side, ‘essentialism’ consti- 
tutes, as we have just seen, the third stage of the ‘sitting in oblivion’ 
in the Return process of the contemplation. And as such, there is 
nothing wrong about it. 

The serious problem arises only when the common sense refuses 
to see any difference in terms of ontological ‘levels’ between ‘exis- 
tentialism’ and ‘essentialism’ and begins to assert that the latter is 
the right view of Being. It is only then that a Chuang-tzu rises in an 
open revolt against ‘essentialism’. Since, however, it is of the very 
nature of common sense to view the things in an ‘essentialist’ way, 
Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu constantly find themselves forced to mani- 
fest the attitude of revolt against such a view. Their philosophy, in 
this respect, may properly be characterized as a revolt against the 
‘tyranny’ of Reason. 

Chuang-tzu sees a typical exemplification of the ‘essentialist’ 
position in the moral philosophy of Confucius. Confucian philos- 
ophy is, in Chuang-tzu’ s view, nothing but an ethical elaboration of 
ontological ‘essentialism’. The so-called cardinal virtues of Con- 
fucius like ‘humaneness’, ‘justice’, etc., are but so many products of 
the normal activity of the Mind which naturally tends to see every- 
where things rigidly determined by their own ‘essences’. The Real- 
ity in its absoluteness has no such ‘boundaries’. But a Confucius 
establishes distinctions where there are none, and fabricates out of 
them rigid, inflexible ethical categories by which he intends to 
regulate human behavior. 

Stop! Stop approaching men with (your teaching of) virtues! 
Dangerous, dangerous, indeed, is (what you are doing), marking off 
the ground and running within the boundaries ! 8 

Ontological ‘essentialism’ is dangerous because as soon as we take 
up such an attitude, we are doomed to lose our natural flexibility of 
mind and consequently lose sight of the absolute ‘undifferentiation’ 
which is the real source and basis of all existent things. ‘Essential- 
ism’ will not remain in the sphere of ontology; it naturally grows into 
a categorization of values which, once established, begins to domi- 
nate our entire behavioral system. 

Chuang-tzu in the following passage 9 gives with keen sarcasm a 
symbolic picture of those people who are vainly engaged in ani- 
mated discussions over the ‘values’ of things, considering them as 
something absolute, something unalterably determined. 

The spring has dried up, and the fish are all on the ground. (In the 
agonies of death) they are spewing each other with moist breath and 
trying to moisten each other with froth and foam. It would be far 
better for them if they could forget each other in a wide river or sea. 
Likewide, the people praise a ‘great man’ and condemn a ‘bad man’. 

360 Sufism and Taoism 

But it would be much better if they could forget both (‘good’ and 

‘bad’) together and be freely ‘transmuted’ with the Way itself. 

‘Essentialism’ would seem to be a philosophical position which is 
most suitable to the human mind. At any rate the Reason and the 
common sense which is but a vulgarized form of Reason naturally 
tend to take an ‘essentialist’ position. And the latter is that upon 
which our ordinary thinking depends. 

The gist of the ‘essentialist’ view may be concisely presented as a 
thesis that all things are endowed with ‘essences’ or ‘quiddities’, 
each thing being clearly marked off by its ‘essence’ from all others. 
A table is a table, for example, and it can never be a chair. The book 
which is upon the table is ‘essentially’ a book, and it is ‘essentially’ 
different from, or other than the table. There are ‘ten thousand’, 
i.e., innumerable, things in the world. But there is no confusion 
among them, for they are separated from one another by clear-cut 
lines of demarcation or ‘boundaries’ which are supplied by their 

As I have said before, this ‘essentialist’ ontology in itself is 
nothing to be rejected. It gives a true picture of things, if it is put in 
the right place, that is to say, as long as one understands it to be the 
picture of things at a certain ontological level. Chuang-tzu takes no 
exception to this. The point he wants to make is that ‘essentialism’ 
should not be regarded as the one and ultimate view of things. And 
he does rise in revolt against it the moment one begins to make such 
a claim . For he is convinced that it is not the ultimate view of things. 

From the standpoint of a man who has seen things in a different 
light in his ecstatic vision, there is ontologically a stage at which the 
‘essences’ become annihilated. This would simply mean for a 
Chuang-tzu that there are ‘from the very beginning’ - as he says - no 
such things as ‘essences’ in the sense of hard and solid ontological 
cores of things. In any event, the so-called ‘essences’ lose, in this 
view, their solidity, and become liquefied. ‘Dream’ and ‘reality’ 
become confused in the vast, limitless world of ‘undifferentiation’. 
There is no longer here any marked distinction to be drawn between 
a table and a chair, between a table and a book. Everything is itself, 
and yet, at the same time, all other things. There being no ‘essences’ , 
all things interpenetrate each other and transform themselves into 
one another endlessly. All things are ‘one’ - in a dynamic way. We 
might properly compare this view with Ibn ‘ ArabFs concept of the 
Unity of Existence, waljdah al-wujud. And we know already that 
this is what Chuang-tzu calls Chaos. 

Ibn ‘Arabi could speak of the Unity of Existence because he 
looked at the world of Multiplicity, the illimitable existents, as so 
many self-determinations or self- manifestations of the Absolute 

§ Against Essentialism 361 

§ which is itself the absolute Unity. In a similar way, Chuang-tzu came 
to the idea of the ‘chaotification’ of things because he looked at 
them from the point of view of the Way, which is also the absolute 
metaphysical Unity. 

In contemporary Western philosophy, special emphasis has often 
been laid upon the ‘tyrannical’ power of language, the great forma- 
tive influence exercised by linguistic patterns on the molding of our 
thought. The influence of language is particularly visible in the 
formation of the ‘essentialist’ view of things. 

From the point of view of an absolute ‘existentialism’, there are 
no watertight compartments in the world of Being. Man, however, 
I ‘articulates’, that is, cuts up - arbitrarily, in most cases - this origi- 

j nally undivided whole into a number of segments. Then he gives a 

f particular name to each of these segments. A segment of Reality, 

I thus given a name, becomes crystallized into a ‘thing’. The name 

f gives it an ‘essential’ fixity, and thus ensures it from disintegration. 

I For better or for worse, such is in fact the power of language. 

I Language, in other words, positively supports ‘essentialism’. 

I Once a ‘thing’ is established with a definite name, man is easily led 

I into thinking that the thing is essentially that and nothing else. If a 

l thing is named A , it acquires A -ness, that is, the ‘essence’ of being A . 

i And since it is A ‘by essence’, it can never be other than A. One 

I could hardly imagine under such conditions the thing’s being B, 

C or D. The thing thus becomes something unalterably fixed and 

This fundamental relation between ‘essentialism’ and language is 
noticed by Chuang-tzu. He notices it because he looks at the matter 
from the point of view of the absolute Way in which, as we have 
repeatedly pointed out, there is not even a trace of ‘essential’ 

The Way has absolutely no ‘boundaries’. Nor has language (which 
produces and expresses such ‘boundaries’) absolutely any perma- 
nency . 10 

But (when the correspondence becomes established between the 
two) there arise real (essential) ‘boundaries ’. 11 

Referring to the sophistic logic of the school of Kung Sun Lung, 
Chuang-tzu points out that this kind of logic is a product of linguistic 
‘essentialism’. 12 

Rather than trying to prove by means of ‘finger’ that a ‘finger’ is not a 
‘finger’, why not prove by means of ‘non-finger’ that a ‘finger’ is not a 

The meaning of this passage will become clear only when we under- 
stand it against the background of the sophistic logic which was 


Sufism and Taoism 

prevalent in Chuang-tzu’ s time. The argument of the Sophists of the 
school of Kung Sun Lung may be summarized as follows. The 
concept of ‘finger’ comprises within itself the concepts of the thumb, 
the index, the middle, the third, and the little fingers. Actually there 
is no ‘finger’ other than these five. That is to say, the ‘finger’ must 
necessarily be one of these five. And yet, if we take up any one of 
them, the ‘index finger’ for example, we find it negating and exclud- 
ing all the rest, because the ‘index finger’ is not any of the other four 
fingers. Thus it comes about that the ‘index finger’ which is a real 
‘finger’, is not a ‘finger’, because its concept applies exclusively to 
itself, not to the others. 

Against this Chuang-tzu remarks that such an argument is simply 
a shallow and superficial piece of sophistry. We do not gain anything 
even if we prove in this manner that a ‘finger’ is not a ‘finger’. 
However, there is a certain respect in which a ‘finger’ is properly to 
be considered a ‘non-finger’. And this latter view - although 
superficially it gives the same conclusion; namely, that a ‘finger’ is 
not a ‘finger’ - is not a piece of sophistry. It is a view standing on the 
‘chaotification’ of things, and it goes to the very heart of the struc- 
ture of Reality. 

The term ‘non-finger’ which appears in the second half of the 
above-quoted statement is not intended to be the logical contradic- 
tory of ‘finger’. It means something like a ‘super-finger’, or an 
ontological state in which a ‘finger’ is no longer a ‘finger’. ‘Why not 
prove by means of “non-finger”?’, Chuang-tzu asks. He means to 
say: instead of wasting time in trying to prove by logical tricks - as 
Kung Sun Lung and his followers are doing - that ‘a finger is not a 
finger’ on the very level of ‘a finger is a finger’, we had better 
transcend at a stroke the ontological level of ‘essential’ distinctions 
and see with the eye of ‘illumination’ the reality of the situation. 
For, in fact, on the level of ‘chaotification’, a ‘finger’ is no longer 
necessarily a ‘finger’, it is no longer so solidly fixed that it can never 
be anything other than itself. All things are one, and we have no 
reason to stick obstinately to the idea that since A is A, it cannot be 
anything other than A. Thus the statement: ‘a “finger” is not a 
“finger” ’ is found to be true; but, this time, on a higher level than 
the one on which the Sophists are trying hard to establish the same 

Chuang-tzu gives one more example, that of a ‘horse’ not being 
a ‘horse’, which was also a notorious topic of the Sophists of his 

Rather than trying to prove by means of ‘horse’ that a ‘horse’ is not a 

‘horse’ , why not prove by means of ‘non-horse’ that a ‘horse is not a 


Against Essentialism 


The structure of the argument is exactly the same as the previous 
one. The Sophists claim that a ‘horse’ is not a ‘horse’ on the basis of 
the following observation. The concept of ‘horse’, they say, must be 
applicable to horses of different colors like ‘white horse’, ‘yellow 
horse’, ‘black horse’ etc., and no ‘horse’ which is actually existent is 
colorless. Every actually existent horse is either white, or black, or 
yellow, etc. And there can be no exception. Let us take a ‘white 
horse’ as an example. The ‘white horse’, being white, naturally 
excludes all horses of other colors. The concept cannot apply to a 
‘black horse’, for instance, or a ‘yellow horse’. And the same is true 
of any horse of any color. Since, however, the concept of ‘horse’ 
must be such that it applies to all horses of all colors, we must 
conclude that no actually existent horse is a ‘horse’. 

The Sophists in this way establish, or claim to establish, that a 
‘horse’ is not a ‘horse’. Against this, Chuang-tzu takes the position 
that, even admitting that they are right in this argument, the conclu- 
sion which they reach thereby is devoid of real significance. As in 
the case of the preceding argument about ‘finger’, Chuang-tzu 
points out that there is a respect in which exactly the same conclu- 
sion can be maintained, but with an entirely new meaning. Here 
again the term ‘non-horse’ refers to the metaphysical level at which 
all ‘essential’ distinctions are eliminated through ‘chaotification’. 

Once we put ourselves on such a level, we perceive that a ‘finger’ 
is a ‘finger’ and yet, at the same time, is not a ‘finger’ , that a ‘horse’ is 
a ‘horse’ and yet is not a ‘horse’. And the same holds true of 
everything else. We can even go to the extreme of asserting that the 
whole world is a ‘finger’, and the whole world is a ‘horse’. 

Heaven and Earth (i.e., the whole universe) are a ‘finger’. All things 
}; are a ‘horse’. 

| Heaven and Earth with ‘ten thousand things’ that exist therein are 
l; but an ‘undifferentiated’ whole, in which all things ontologically 
interpenetrate one another. In such a state, a ‘horse’ is not unalter- 
ably a ‘horse’; it can be anything else. Looking at this particular 
situation from the reverse side we could say that all things are 
entitled to be regarded as a ‘horse’ or ‘finger’, or indeed, anything 

From such a standpoint, Chuang-tzu goes on to criticize the 
‘essentialist’ position in the following manner . 13 

(Instead of looking at the matter from the viewpoint of ‘non-finger’ 
and ‘non-horse’, people divide up the originally undifferentiated 
whole of Being into various categories which, again, they classify into 
‘right’ and ‘not-right’) and insist on the ‘right’ being unalterably 
‘right’ and the ‘not-right’ being unalterably ‘not-right’. (The distinc- 
tion, however, between ‘right’ and ‘not-right’, far from being 


Sufism and Taoism 

something 'essential', i.e., something based on the very nature of 
Being, is but a matter of custom and habit, just as) a road is formed 
(where there was none before) merely by people walking constantly 
upon it. Likewise, the ‘things’ are formed by their being designated 
by this or that particular name (simply by virtue of a social custom or 
convention ). 14 

(And once the ‘things' are thus crystallized, they are considered as 
either ‘right’ or ‘not-right’, ‘so’ or ‘not-so’). On what ground does 
man judge a thing to be ‘so?’ He judges to be ‘so’ whatever (other 
people or ‘society’ by custom) judge to be ‘so’. On what ground does 
man judge a thing to be ‘not-so’? He is merely judging it to be ‘not-so’ 
because (other people) judge it (by custom) to be ‘not-so’. 

(However, from the viewpoint of ‘illumination’, the reality of things 
can only be grasped when one puts oneself on a higher level of 
non-discriminating acceptance which transcends all such relative 
distinctions. And viewed from such a place) there is a certain respect 
in which everything without exception is to be regarded as being ‘so’ 
(i.e., affirmable and acceptable), and everything without exception is 
to be regarded as ‘right’. There is nothing that is not ‘so’. There is 
nothing that is not ‘right’. Whether a stalk of grain or a great pillar, 
whether a leper or a (beautiful lady like) Hsi Shih, however strange , 
bizarre, ugly and grotesque things may be, the Way makes them all 

The Reality perceived on such a level is called by Chuang-tzu 
Heavenly-Equalization , 15 or Walking-Two- Ways (at the same 
time ). 16 The former term means a ‘natural’ metaphysical state in 
which all things, without being disturbed by the distinctions be- 
tween ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, etc., repose in their 
original harmony or equality. And since, as Ch’eng Hsiian Ying 
observes, the ‘sacred man’ always sees things in such a state of 
Equality, his mind too reposes in an eternal peace, being never 
disturbed by the distinctions and differences among things. The 
second term, literally meaning ‘going both ways’, refers to the same 
metaphysical state in which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ , or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ , 
are both equally acceptable; a state, in other words, in which all 
opposites and contradictories become acceptable in the ultimate 
Unity of coincidentia oppositorum. 

It is highly significant that the second chapter of the Chuang-tzu is 
entitled Ch’i Wu Lun, 11 i.e., ‘Discourse on Equalizing (All) Things’. 
The chapter is so entitled because it is mainly concerned with the 
view according to which all things are ‘equal’, that is, ultimately 
One. And since, according to this view, such ‘equalization’ of things 
is justifiable only at the level of ‘existence’ , not at that of ‘ essences’ , I 
consider this theory rightly comparable with Ibn ‘Arabi’s Unity of 

Against Essentialism 


‘ Essentialism’ , if it is to be a philosophical view of existents, must be 
able to explain the whole of the world of Being. And it does intend - 
and does claim, implicitly at least - to be comprehensive enough to 
cover all things. But how, in actual fact, could it be so when its very 
nature consists in isolating single ontological units, making them 
‘essentially’ independent of one another? If one makes such an 
approach to things, and yet wants to comprehend all of them, one is 
forced to have recourse to the method of enumeration and addition. 
But, however far one may go in this direction, one will never reach 
the ultimate end. For no matter how many independent units one 
may pile up one upon another, one will be left with an infinite 
number of things still untouched and uncomprehended. 

Thus essentialism’ is by its very nature utterly incapable of 
grasping the reality of the world of Being in its infinite complexity 
and in its limitless development and transformation. In order to 
comprehend the whole of the world of Being as it really is and as it 
really works, we must, Chuang-tzu maintains, abandon the level of 
essential’ distinctions, and, by unifying ourselves with ‘existence’ 
itself which pervades all things, look at all things in their original 
state of ‘chaotification’ and ‘undifferentiation’. Instead of formulat- 
ing this thesis in such a theoretical form, Chuang-tzu explains his 
point through the concrete example of Chao Wen, a famous lute 

That a thing can become ‘perfect’ and ‘defective’ (at the same time) 
may aptly be exemplified by what happens when Chao Wen plays the 
lute. That a thing can remain ‘not-perfect’ and ‘not-defective’ may 
aptly be exemplified by what happens when Chao Wen does not plav 
the lute . 18 

The meaning of the passage may be explicated as follows. Chao 
Wen is a musician of genius. When he plays the lute, the particular 
piece of music which he plays becomes actualized in a perfect form. 
This is what is referred to by the expression: ‘that a thing can 
become perfect’. 

However , by the very fact that Chao Wen plays a particular piece 
of music and actualizes it in a perfect form, the infinite number of 
other pieces which are left behind become darkened and nullified. 
This is what is meant by the thing being ‘defective’ at the same time. 
Thus a perfect actualization of one single piece of music is at the 
same time the negation and nullification of all other possibilities. 
Only when Chao Wen does not actually play, are we in a position to 
enjoy all the pieces of music which he is capable of actualizing. And 
only in such a form is his music ‘perfect’ in an absolute sense, that is, 
in a sense in which it transcends the very distinction between ‘per- 
fection’ and ‘imperfection’ (or ‘defectiveness’). 

366 Sufism and Taoism 

The ‘equalization’ of all things thus brings us into the very core of 
the reality of Being. If, however, one sticks to this idea and discards 
completely the phenomenal aspect of things, one falls into an 
equally inexcusable error. For, after all, the infinitely various and 
variegated phenomena are also an aspect of Reality. Certainly, the 
music of Chao Wen is ‘perfect’ in an absolute sense, only when he 
does not play his lute. But it is also true that the possibilities that lie 
hidden in his ability are destined to be ‘perfected’ in a relative sense 
and will never cease to work up their way from possibility to 
actuality even to the detriment of one another. Both forms of 
‘perfection’, absolute and relative, fundamental and phenomenal, 
are essential to the reality of his music. 

Likewise, in the ontological structure of things, both the original 
‘undifferentiation’ and the phenomenal ‘differentiation’, or Unity 
and Multiplicity, are real. If Chuang-tzu emphasizes so much the 
former aspect, it is chiefly because at the common sense level of 
human experience the phenomenal aspect is so prominent and so 
dominant that it is commonly considered the reality. 

The root of Being is absolutely one. But it does not repose forever 
in its original Unity. On the contrary, it belongs to the very nature of 
Being that it never ceases to manifest itself in infinite forms. It goes 
on diversifying itself into ‘ten thousand things’ which, again, go on 
endlessly transforming themselves into one another. This is the 
phenomenal aspect of Being. But by going through this very process 
of ontological ‘diversification’ and ‘differentiation’ all things are 
returning to their ultimate metaphysical source. The process of 
‘descent’ and the process of ‘ascent’ are paradoxically one and the 
same thing. The relation between Unity and Multiplicity must be 
understood in this way. Just as Unity is not a static ‘oneness’ of 
death and rigidity, but is a never-ceasing dynamic process of a 
coincidentia oppositorum , Multiplicity is not a static ‘differentia- 
tion’ of things that are rigidly fixed once for all, but is a constant life 
process which contains within itself the ontological tension of Unity 
in Multiplicity. 

If looked at from the viewpoint of ‘differentiation’, (nothing is the 
same as anything else), and even liver and gall (a typical example of 
two things closely resembling each other), are as different and as far 
apart as the country of Ch’u and the country of Yiieh. 

However, looked at from the viewpoint of ‘sameness’, all things are 
one and the same . 19 

Unfortunately, the eyes of ordinary men are dazzled by the pheno- 
menal scintillations of Multiplicity and cannot perceive the pro- 
found Unity that underlies the whole. They cannot, as Chuang-tzu 
says, ‘unify the objects of their knowledge’. 20 

Against Essentialism 367 

The only right attitude we can take in such a situation is to ‘let our 
minds be at ease in the harmony of spiritual perfection’ . 21 The word 
‘harmony’ {ho) here refers, as Ch’eng Hsiian Ying remarks, to the 
fact that when we ‘unify the objects of our knowledge’ and ‘chaotify’ 
all things, our mind enjoys a perfect peace, being no longer dis- 
turbed by ‘what our ears and eyes approve’ ; it refers also to the fact 
that all things at this level are peacefully together, there being no 
‘essential’ oppositions between them. We must not be blind to the 
phenomenal aspect of Being, Chuang-tzu says; but it is wrong for us 
to remain confined in the same phenomenal world and observe the 
Multiplicity of things exclusively from the phenomenal point of 
view. We must transcend such a stage, go up to a higher level, and 
looking down from that height observe the kaleidoscope of the 
ever-shifting Multiplicity of things. Only when we do this, are we in 
a position to know the reality of Being. 

The dynamic relation between the original absolute Unity and the 
phenomenal Multiplicity, that is to say, the process by which the 
Absolute, stepping out of its metaphysical darkness, diversifies 
itself into a myriad of things of the phenomenal world is something 
which, as I have repeatedly pointed out discloses its reality only to a 
mind in the state of ekstasis, or as Chuang-tzu calls it, ‘sitting in 
oblivion’. Particularly difficult to understand for a non-ecstatic 
mind is the ontological status of ‘essences’. 

As the Absolute divides itself through a process of ontological 
evolvement into ‘ten thousand things’, each one of the latter does 
seem to acquire a particular ‘essence’. For, after all, what is the 
meaning of talking about ‘ten thousand things’, if they are not 
distinguishable from each other? How could they be distinguishable 
from each other if they were devoid of ‘essences’? When we recog- 
nize A as being different and distinguishable from B, are we not at 
the same time recognizing A as being endowed with an ‘essence’ 
which is different from that of B1 

From the viewpoint of Chuang-tzu, however, the things being 
endowed with ‘essences’ and their being ‘essentially’ distinguish- 
able from one another is simply a matter of appearance. Each of the 
‘ten thousand things’ appears to have its own ‘essence’ unalterably 
fixed once for all. In fact, it merely appears or seems to have such an 

But our picture inevitably becomes complicated by the fact that 
those seeming ‘essences’ are not sheer nothing, either. They are not 
mere products of hallucination. They do have an ontological status 
peculiar to them. They are not ontologically groundless. The abso- 
lute all-pervading ‘existence’ can take on an infinite variety of forms 
because there is a kind of ontological basis for them. We cannot 


Sufism and Taoism 

certainly say that the ‘essences’ exist in the ordinary sense of the 
world. But we cannot say either that they are absolutely non- 

It is at this point that Ibn ‘Arab!, as we remember, introduced the 
concept of ‘permanent archetypes’ ( a‘yan thabitah ) into his 
metaphysical system. And the concept did work admirably well. For 
Ibn ‘Arab! succeeded thereby in philosophically settling the 
difficulty raised by this paradoxical situation. The ‘permanent 
archetypes’ are those metaphysical principles which can ‘be said 
neither to exist nor not to exist’, and through which the all- 
pervading divine Existence becomes inflected into a myriad of 
‘things’. But for him, too, it was not basically a philosophical ques- 
tion; it was rather a matter of an ecstatic vision. 

Chuang-tzu has no such philosophical device. Instead, he resorts 
directly, as he often does, to a symbolic presentation of the content 
of his metaphysical vision. As a result, we now have what is unanim- 
ously acknowledged to be one of the most masterly descriptions of 
Wind in Chinese literature. It is not, of course, a mere literary piece 
of work. It is a philosophical symbol which Chuang-tzu uses for the 
purpose of expressing verbally what is verbally inexpressible. 
Furthermore, the whole passage is philosophically of supreme 
importance, because, as we shall see immediately, it constitutes 
what we might call a Taoist ‘proof of the existence of God’. 

The beginning part of the passage is purely symbolic. Its real 
philosophical meaning may best be understood if, in reading it, one 
keeps in mind that the Cosmic Wind symbolizes ‘existence’, or the 
Absolute in its all-pervading actus, and that the hollow ‘ openings’ of 
the trees symbolize ‘essences’. 

The Great Earth eructates; and the eructation is called Wind . 22 As 
long as the eructation does not actually occur, nothing is observable. 
But once it does occur, all the hollows of the trees raise ringing 

Listen! Do you not hear the trailing sound of the wind as it comes 
blowing from afar? The trees in the mountain forests begin to rustle, 
stir, and sway, and then all the hollows and holes of huge trees 
measuring a hundred arms’ lengths around begin to give forth differ- 
ent sounds. 

There are holes like noses, like mouths, like ears; some are (square) 
like crosspieces upon pillars; some are (round) as cups, some are like 
mortars. Some are like deep ponds; some are like shallow basins. 
(The sounds they emit are accordingly various): some roar like 
torrents dashing against the rocks; some hiss like flying arrows; some 
growl, some gasp, some shout, some moan. Some sounds are deep 
and muffled, some sounds are sad and mournful. 

As the first wind goes away with the light trailing sound, there comes 
the following one with a deep rumbling sound. To a gentle wind the 

Against Essentialism 


hollows answer with faint sounds. To a stormy wind they answer with 
loud sounds. 

However, once the raging gale has passed on, all these hollows and 
holes are empty and soundless. You see only the boughs swaying 
silently, and the tender twigs gently moving . 23 

As I said before, this is not intended to be a mere literary description 
of wind. Chuang-tzu’s real intention is disclosed by what follows this 
passage. The philosophical intention of Chuang-tzu may be formu- 
lated in the following way. The ‘hollows’ and ‘holes’ of the trees 
imagine that they are independently existent, that they emit these 
sounds. They fail to notice that they emit these sounds only by the 
active working of the Wind upon them. It is, in reality, the Wind that 
makes the ‘hollows’ resound. 

Not that the ‘hollows’ do not exist at all. They are surely there. 
But they are actualized only by the positive activity of the Wind. As 
is evident, this is a very apt description of the ontological status of 
‘essences’, which was mentioned earlier. 

It is also evident that the Wind here is not an ordinary physical 
wind. It is the Cosmic Wind corresponding exactly to Ibn ‘Arabi’s 
concept of sarayan al-wujud, lit. the ‘spreading of Existence’. It is 
interesting and, indeed, extremely significant, that both Ibn ‘Arab! 
and Chuang-tzu conceive of ‘existence’ as something moving - 
‘blowing’, ‘flowing’, or ‘spreading’. For both of them, ‘existence’ is 

(One and the same Wind) blows on ten thousand things in different 
ways, and makes each hollow produce its own peculiar sound, so that 
each imagines that its own self produces that particular sound. But 
who, in reality, is the one who makes (the hollows) produce various 
sounds ? 24 

Who is it? In order to give the right answer to this crucial question, 
we must remark first of all that the Cosmic Wind has no sound of its 
own. The ‘sound of Heaven’ ( t’ien lai) is soundless. What is audible 
to our physical ears are only the ten thousand sounds produced by 
the hollows of the trees. They are not the sound of Heaven; they are 
but the ‘sound of Earth’ (ti lai). But, Chuang-tzu insists, we must 
hear the soundless sound of Heaven behind each of the ten 
thousand sounds of Earth. Rather, we must realize that in hearing 
the sound of Earth we are really hearing nothing other than the 
sound of Heaven. The infinitely various sounds which the hollows 
emit are no other than the one, absolute sound of Heaven. 

It is to be remarked that exactly the same question: ‘Who is it?’ can 
and must be asked of what actually is observable in the ‘interior’ 
region of our own being. Just as the ‘hollows’ of the trees emit all 


Sufism and Taoism 

kinds of sounds as the Wind blows upon them, the ‘interior’ of man 
is in a state of constant turmoil. Who causes all this commotion? 
That is the central question. Are the minds of men themselves 
responsible for it? Or are the stimuli coming from external things its 
causes? No, Chuang-tzu answers. But let us first see how he 
describes the inner ‘hollows’ interminably producing noises and 

Even while asleep, the souls of men are (tormented) by coming into 
touch with various things (in dreams). When they wake up, the bodily 
functions begin to be active; they get entangled with external things, 
and all kinds of thoughts and emotions are aroused in them. And this 
induces them to use their mind every day in quarreling with others. 
Some minds are idle and vacant. Some minds are abstruse. Some are 
scrupulous. Those who have petty fears are nervous; those who are 
assailed by great fears are simply stupefied. 

The way they argue about the rightness and wrongness of matters 
reminds us of those who shoot arrows and missiles (i.e., they are 
extremely quick and active). They endeavor to s